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It ain’t over. How the Lib Dems are going to rewrite the higher education white paper

And what of the Liberal Democrats, without whom no higher education bill can pass through the House of Commons?

The release today by the Office for Fair Access of university plans to aid social mobility has put the spotlight back on the Lib Dems failure to keep fees low or deliver the protection for poor students that they have promised.

One possible response to the unfolding nightmare of tuition fees is for the Lib Dems to shy away. Weve all done it when hurt, and to some extent we know this has happened. In recent months, universities report that the work on the white paper has gone through David Willetts and his special adviser, Nick Hillman. Vince Cable and his team have hardly been seen. It cant have helped that the party HQ has been shaking out staff after losing state funding (only available to opposition parties).

So Aaron Porters diagnosis of Lib Dem abdication on reading the white paper last month was no surprise. The now ex-leader of the National Union of Students argued: “Rather than seizing the white paper as a chance to repair the Lib Dems damaged reputation on higher education, Cable went walkabouts.”

Reading the white paper, I completely agree that it lacks the yellow touch. The place we should find that, if nowehere else, is in chapter 5 on social mobility. Cable promised MPs in the crunch tuition fees debate in the House of Commons that, “any university that wants to go beyond £6,000 will have to satisfy very demanding tests of access for low-income families”. But look in chapter 5 and you will struggle to find any substance. In essence, the existing regime is being retained unchanged, including, unaltered by one comma, the objectives of the Office for Fair Access.

This is surprising because the evidence on social mobility by the time we get to the next election could look grim. Remember, all the promises of “improved access” do not mean that more students from poor families will be admitted to university, let alone the prestigious ones – even if universities fulfil their new OFFA access agreements.

And we know from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that putting fees up deters potential students, even if you provide equal amounts of grants and loans.

And in its final analysis of the new system, the IFS also said, “By decile of parental income, graduates from the poorest 30 per cent of households would pay back… more than under the current system.”

And the effect of the two market reforms that were in the white paper are unclear. The AAB move at the top could be bad for access (which is why Steve Smith of Universities UK is pleading for the government to allow contextual data to be used to soften the boundary). The expansion in cheap places at the bottom could be good. But no one is yet sure.

So if Porter is right, I would bet real money that by the election the evidence will show the Coalition to have presided over a decline in the number of poor students going to university, a decline in the number going to top unis and red numbers for a whole bunch of other “hard” social mobility stats recording outcomes as opposed to “soft” ones on spending, outreach and other inputs. Helpfully, OFFA will be publishing figures every year (though the data will be very messy).

But Im convinced that this is not the end of the story. After talking with some Lib Dems, I think there is an appetite in the party to go further, faster on social mobility. This is the kind of noise coming from people close to Simon Hughes, the governments Access Advocate, who is due to publish proposals for improvements soon. Note also that Tim Leunig, the influential head of the Lib Dem CentreForum think tank, has called today for OFFA to be scrapped.

So what we can expect is a distinctly Lib Dem strand of HE policy to emerge in the coming months. This will probably be focused on social mobility but could – the nightmare for universities – spread wider.These proposals will then have to be married with those in the white paper to create a bill than can command a majority in the House of Commons.

This approach makes a lot of sense for Clegg. Theres plenty of time to do this – no legislation until next year. It fits the revised Clegg strategy of distinguishing the Lib Dems more sharply from the Conservatives. It allows Clegg maximum scope to smooth over inevitable problems with the party grassroots on this issue at the Lib Dem conference in September. It also makes sense of the non-chapter on access. And done right, this doesnt have to be the car crash we saw after the NHS white paper.

In this case, there are problems facing the Lib Dems in actually coming up with policies that improve social mobility. A large chunk of the party is wedded to the idea of free higher education with a zeal that baffles Cleggs allies. They may be unwilling to countenance comparatively minor tweaks to the actual policy since that would imply a kind of acceptance of the rises in tuition fees (although this problem will be eased by the fact that a new HE policy is not due to be ratified by the party conference until September 2012). Also, the party is going to have find some sensible people to help it make policy if it wants to overcome the amateur image it has acquired in the sector.

A while back there were rumours that Hughes could recommend Texan-style quotas for top universities to admit the top X per cent from each type of school. This would detonate a gigantic row not only with universities jealously guarding their right to control admissions but also with private schools who would see a large part of their raison detre going up in smoke. And unlike the NHS reforms backed by the Lib Dems at their spring conference, a Texan plan would not be popular with many Conservative MPs, which would make it a politically explosive choice, too. Ive not found any trace of Texan proposals recently but it shows how dramatic the debate could become. And of course, there would be something curious about Conservatives trying to argue that a policy adopted in the famously Republican home of George Bush was some sort of lefty lunacy.

Whatevers in it, Hughes plan could be the platform for an attempt by Clegg to win back some trust from his party on higher education, followed by voters in time for the next elections. That would inevitably mean new, important and – preferably from Cleggs point of view – contentious policy from the Lib Dems.