How to sort out the mess
The present situation on university admissions is a disaster that satisfies no one, and is deeply disheartening to Conservatives who looked for better things from a Conservative-led government.
It cuts across the Conservative commitment to localism, by imposing top-down solutions and tying the hands of universities.
It is a Soviet-style attempt to defy the market and impose pricing from the centre.
Since most universities are aiming to charge the maximum allowed (or close to the maximum), it will impose a huge and unplanned cash-flow impact on the Treasury. George Osborne must be concerned.
Worst of all, at the behest of the Lib-Dems we are seeking to impose the most preposterous social-engineering measures on university admissions. These will mean that less-able students achieve places ahead of more-able ones. It will allocate scarce resources inefficiently. It will drive down standards in our finest universities — and across the board.
Far from promoting “fair access”, it will be profoundly unfair both to high-achievers who are denied university places, and to less capable students unprepared for the university environment.
It is a confidence-trick against many of the students who are supposed to benefit from it, in that it will persuade less academic students to pursue academic courses for which they are unsuited, while directing them away from vocational training options that may have suited them much better. Judging by the figures we see for drop-out rates at our less distinguished universities, it is likely to increase drop-out rates, and therefore increase the waste of both educational resources and students’ time and commitment.
So may I propose a radical free-market alternative?
First, we should set universities free to charge whatever fees they consider suitable, and that they believe the market can sustain. And we also should set them free to establish their own criteria for admissions, with no interference from the state.
Second, the Chancellor should set a national budget for tuition fees. This would be fixed and predictable — something a Chancellor should appreciate. This budget should then be allocated by subject, so as to favour subjects and disciplines that offer the nation an economic benefit. High rates of subsidy for engineering, science, maths. Moderate rates for geography, history, modern languages. Less for media studies, and nothing for golf course management.
Of course educationalists will squeal their disapproval and insist that students should be free to study any subject of their choice. I agree. But that doesn’t mean that archaeology should receive the same support from the taxpayer as (say) nuclear engineering. If the state subsidises, it is entitled to bias its subsidies in favour of economically useful subjects.
Then the Lib-Dems and the bleeding hearts will demand to know what we do about bright students from poor backgrounds, who can’t afford to study even at a subsidised rate. Good question, but let’s not forget that universities actually want to recruit the best candidates, and have a range of bursaries, scholarships and assisted places for this purpose. If that’s not enough, let’s allocate some fraction of the Chancellors university tuition budget for scholarships (I personally got one of the last State Scholarships before they were discontinued in 1963, so I have a soft spot for them).
But then let’s allocate those Scholarships on two very rigid criteria: first, academic achievement, rigorously assessed; and second, a means test so that the money really does go to very bright kids who might otherwise not be able to afford university. Let’s absolutely not allocate funds based on social deprivation, poverty indices or a desire to “share out” scholarships by school or by post-code. If schools are failing to prepare children for university, then let’s sort out the schools (as I believe Michael Gove is doing) — not dumb down the universities.
I believe this system would offer budgetary certainty to the Chancellor, support to students, and a strong bias in favour of the national economic interest.