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The cost of Cameron’s tuition fees denial

The most damaging taunt that can cascade down from the terraces at a football match is the heavily sprung “You dont know what yer doing”. Its rare for a manager to hear that and keep his job. Yet if David Cameron is forced next week to repeat yesterdays fantastical performance at PMQs on tuition fees, this is exactly what he will start to hear, and not only from the Labour benches.

Here is the exchange at Prime Ministers Questions between Cameron and Ed Miliband on fees yesterday:

Miliband: Let me turn to a different issue: tuition fees. The Prime Minister said that universities will charge £9,000 in tuition fees only in exceptional circumstances. How many of the 23 universities that have announced their plans are planning to charge £9,000?

Cameronr: On tuition fees, the point about the £9,000 is well made. Universities can charge £9,000 only if they go through a number of steps to prove that they really are improving access to universities1. I do not have the figures available, but I am very happy to give them to him when I do.

Miliband: This is an important point, because when the Prime Minister was selling his tuition fees policy he reassured people that there would be a basic threshold of £6,000, but that “in exceptional circumstances” some universities would be allowed to charge £9,000. Of the 23 universities that have announced their fees, 18—more than 80%—plan to charge £9,000. It is not the exception; it is the rule. I am afraid—not for the first time—that this policy has not been implemented competently. The next problem he faces with this policy is that it will cost the Treasury more money to fund the loans. Will he guarantee that that money will not come from university budgets or through a reduction in student numbers?

Cameron: It is worth reminding the House that university tuition fees were first introduced by the Labour party. There are two important points about this threshold. First, each university will have to spend £900 per place on access requirements2. Secondly, the Office for Fair Access will decide whether universities can go to that £9,000 threshold. Very tough rules have been published3 and placed in the House for people to see. On the additional money that will go into higher education, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: because of the system we are introducing, we will be spending more overall on universities4. However, the key thing is that because of the reductions in spending we are having to make elsewhere, this is the only way to guarantee that we have well-funded universities, well-stocked libraries, well-paid lecturers and good universities to take on the world.

Miliband: I asked a very simple question: where will the money come from, given that the Government have miscalculated the level of tuition fees? Universities up and down the country are worried that the Prime Minister does not think that an 80% cut in the teaching budget is enough and that he will come back for more.

Ive underlined four key passage from Cameron that illustrate the trouble the government is now in.

1. “Universities can charge £9,000 only if they go through a number of steps to prove that they really are improving access to universities” – this claim is false. “Access” is a problematic word – what actually is it? But whatever the answer to that question, universities already have in place policies and programmes to provide it. There is no obligation under the current regime for them to improve access.

2. “Each university will have to spend £900 per place on access requirements” – this claim is also false. The Office for Fair Access has produced a document showing how much money it suggests universities to spend on access. But there is no obligation on them to meet OFFAs spending targets and OFFA cannot block their path to tuition fees of £9,000 if they decline to do so. Furthermore, theres a hidden suggestion in all this that the £900 is new money. Au contraire, universities are already spending money on access and may well end up spending about the same next year as they were last year.

3. “Very tough rules have been published” – Well, rules have been published. But they are no tougher than they were last year. They cant be, because as Martin Harris explained to me, OFFAs legal powers remain exactly what they were, and exactly as limited, as they were last year. To use an analogy, Cameron is suggesting that a new headteacher is coming in to sort out a school of unruly pupils (the universities). But in fact the headteacher is exactly the same as last year. And so are the school rules. All that has changed is that the new set of governors are wringing their hands in public and the headteacher is handling out lectures before ending up saying, as before, “Oh go on then”.

4. “On the additional money…” – Cameron has apparently misunderstood Milibands question here. He appears not even to know that there is a problem looming. But there is a big problem that people like the Higher Education Policy Institute and me have been pointing out since last November.

Put these four points together and what is revealed is a government in denial. The Prime Minister asserts as fact two falsehoods. He makes a third point that is vacuous. On the fourth, he is so far removed from reality that he either does not – or cannot bring himself – to understand the question.

The government set out last year with the intention of limiting fees via OFFA. That plan has failed, possibly because in the middle of it all ministers decided to make redundant the man who might have pointed out it was illegal. And right now, there is no Plan B. This is the horrid fact that ministers cannot bring themselves to confront.

We now have universities declaring fees of £9,000 daily. For the newspapers and telly news, it is now a running story. Miliband fed that story today and it will snowball for every day that passes without clarity.

The medias focus will rapidly narrow to three key points. The first is the one Miliband made today. The government promised Parliament and the public that tuition fees of £9,000 would be “exceptional“. It has failed to fulfil that promise and we at Research Fortnight are currently forecasting average fees for all universities of £8,600. This broken promise is doubly damaging in the wake of the Lib Dem MPs failure to keep their promise to vote against higher fees. The Coalition cannot “move on” from the nightmare of last November and December while it has another broken promise hanging round its neck – and this time Conservatives are also in the firing line.

The second point is the feeling that £9,000 a year is just too high for many prospective students. Ministers can try to blame universities for this. But voters will blame them, the people who promised not to let it happen.

The third point is the question of what is going to be done about the looming overspend on tuition fees – which is again something that it is clearly the governments job to sort out.

There are things the government can do on all three issues. The point is that at the moment it is not doing any of them. David Willetts said he wouldnt provide a running commentary on fees. But that is beginning to look like an elegant excuse for a bunker mentality. With every new announcement of £9,000 he and Vince Cable look more and more like ministers who have lost their way. The only sure thing is that if they really believed that fees would average out much lower than they are, then they must be frantically recalibrating the political impact of their policy on various pockets of voters.

This week at PMQs, Cameron occupied the land the government wished it inhabited but which is in fact a fantasy. He got away with it because MPs, the Westminster correspondents and the news desks are ignorant of the detail of the OFFA situation. But these people are not stupid. By next week Cameron wont be able to get away with saying OFFA will sort it out. If Miliband opts to return to the fray then next week Cameron will have to overcome the governments denial and provide some proper answers. Or start to face headlines like last November full of words like “chaos”, “crisis” and “confusion” – and a hardening consensus that, on tuition fees, the government doesnt know what its doing.

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