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Bill of reality

William Cullerne Bown  

No higher education bill does not mean no legislation. Secondary legislation is always possible. And even some primary legislation is still a possibility, smuggled into the other education bills that seem likely in the coming session. But the delay or even scrapping of the promised higher education bill shows that realism is setting in.

The question is, what kind of realism? Is it merely the dreary counting of the whips, who want to avoid a bottleneck in the Lords? Is it simply that they have realised that the academic peers who backed the raising of fees to £9,000 don’t like the rest of the government’s package and will cause strife and delay that might put at risk some of the other legislation the government wants to get through parliament?

There are more possibilities. Is the realism more political, a recognition that some of the big objectives outlined in the higher education White Paper last year, such as making it easier for new players to enter the market for undergraduate degrees, are unattractive? Andrew McGettigan’s warnings about privatisation in these pages have hit home. And education giant Pearson, who wanted degree-awarding powers under new legislation, seems the one obvious loser from delay.

Is it entirely pragmatic, a recognition that the cards of English higher education really have been thrown in the air and that it would be better to see where they fall before conjuring up more storms? We are shortly going to see the results of the first, limited experiment with core-margin student places and it is going to be hard to sell as a success. Some good universities are going to have lost 30 per cent of their undergraduate places, while others will be making hay after doubling their fees.

Is it purely tactical, a desire to deny opponents the media spotlight that comes with a bill?

Or is it something else still? Is it the emerging reality of coalition negotiations that the bill is simply not important enough for either the Lib Dems or Conservatives to make its way into the programme?

What is certain is that this is yet another momentous change for universities. Their future was already shrouded in interwoven mysteries of policy, politics and market. Now there is a fourth dimension to the chaos—a legal one.

No one knows how much of the government’s plan is achievable within the existing legislative framework. Hundreds of issues that were to be resolved in a new Act will now have to be re-scrutinised by civil servants.

To take but one example, the Higher Education Funding Council for England imposes its writ on universities largely via the annual financial memorandum they all have to sign to get their block grant. But some vice-chancellors are already asking why they should sign a financial memorandum with HEFCE after 2014 when their teaching grant has disappeared.

Well, of course, HEFCE funding won’t have entirely disappeared. There will still be undergraduate money in some subjects, plus research money and other bits and pieces. A memorandum will still be required and, if this were a transaction between companies, that would probably give HEFCE enough leverage to get its way.

But it isn’t a commercial transaction and, in the current legal framework, can HEFCE insist on imposing conditions on the way universities treat undergraduates whom it does not fund? Can it insist on overarching requirements for financial viability, for example, when it only provides a small proportion of the university’s total income? These may be questions for the courts.

It is not even clear that the government still has a plan, rather than relying on the instincts of David Willetts. We may look back on this as the point at which that political zeal was abandoned and all that remained was whatever it took to keep the student loan book under control.

There is a parallel with the NHS. In both cases, Conservative ministers have embarked on ambitious reforms owing more to market ideology than to evidence and planning. In both cases, the government is running into deep-seated, articulate opposition from heavyweight experts with links to Lib Dems and the Lords, not to mention employees. In both cases, it is turning out that the ministers do not have the strength to see fundamental parts of their reforms through. What will emerge in the end remains obscure. This is not the decisive government that Brits yearn for. It is irredeemably contingent. Anybody who says they know anything, knows nothing. A change in direction could be accelerated by events. If there has to be a Cabinet reshuffle, perhaps because of the indiscretions of Chris Huhne or Michael Gove, then higher education could end up back in the dysfunctional education department that employs 3,000 civil servants but can’t even pay schools on time.

Nobody in that chaos is going to try to tell universities what to do. In which case, the new doubts over a new act may mark the point at which the hand on the tiller of higher education policy started to move back from Whitehall mandarins to the softer self-regulation of Bristol.