When politicians associated with one particular policy or another change their mind, it is often a reason to cheer. This is because it tends to happen when they recognise some old evidence is correct after all or some new evidence comes to light and they respond to it.
In general, our politicians are more evidence-based than they are given credit for – or least that was my experience during more than a decade working in Westminster and Whitehall. Indeed, they are so evidence-based that they are regularly accused of being too willing to undertake screeching u-turns or of acting insincerely. When a politician like Jeremy Corbyn rises to prominence, he seems like a breath of fresh air precisely because he has changed his mind on so little during his four decades in Parliament.
I have been pondering this because of the huge volte face undertaken in the last few days by Andrew Adonis, who has always been regarded as a very evidence-based politician and a pretty non-tribal one. Over a decade ago, he was a key architect of the student finance system that we now have. In recent times, it has been in the interests of both the Labour Party, who want to look like the student’s friend, and the Conservative Party, who want to look fiscally responsible, to claim the increase in fees to £9,000 in 2012 heralded an entirely new system. But, in fact, it was the Blair / Adonis package with bells and whistles added.
If you doubt it, consider this: the reason no new primary legislation was necessary for tripling fees back in 2010 was because Adonis’s 2004 legislation enabled fees to be changed by secondary legislation, which is relatively swift and easy. While the new Higher Education and Research Act (2017) took months to pass through Parliament, £9,000 fees took just one tricky afternoon in the House of Commons and one slightly less tricky afternoon in the House of Lords. Indeed, if that had not been the case, more Lib Dems would probably have peeled away and the higher fees would have been impossible to introduce.
Lord Adonis now says the whole system of funding teaching in universities via tuition fees is wrong and should be junked altogether. More than that, he has taken to lashing out at Vice-Chancellors, called for an investigation of tuition fees by the Competition and Markets Authority and is now battling away with academics on how they spend the summer on Twitter.
Even though he has suddenly changed his mind, I find little reason to cheer on this occasion. It seems to me that there are three problems with his change of heart.
First, it is intellectually incoherent. Adonis’s argument runs that £3,000 were right and £9,000 fees are wrong (despite their similarities). But he does not follow his own logic to argue for the reintroduction of something like the old £3,000 system, perhaps updated to today’s money. He calls instead for the abolition of all fees. (Except for international students, whose fees should apparently be so implausibly high that they cover the costs of educating home students once fees disappear.)
His argument is also intellectually weak. Even though most universities charged the maximum £3,000 (plus inflation) in days gone by, he claims to be shocked that universities generally rushed to charge £9,000 in 2012. He has even accused universities of acting like a ‘cartel‘, which is a very serious accusation (look at what happened to independent schools when they did act like a cartel when setting their fees). The claim is nonsense because, even if university managers had all been locked in solitary confinement when devising their fee levels, they would still have ended up with the same answer: £9,000. Here’s an explanation as to why.
The third weakness in Lord Adonis’s argument is that it makes false linkages. There may be a case for a debate on the level of Vice-Chancellors’ pay – Jo Johnson certainly thinks there is (although the critics need to name a better system than the remuneration committees that currently typically determine what university leaders are paid). But it is silly to draw a direct line between higher tuition fees and the current levels of remuneration. The highest-paid Vice-Chancellor in the country has a package of roughly £450,000. That is a huge sum, but it equates to the tuition fees of 50 home / EU students whereas universities tend to have over 10,000 undergraduates, lots of postgraduates and substantial research and third-stream funding. Moreover, Vice-Chancellors were pretty well paid even before 2012 – and it is, let’s not forget, a huge job.
So, in terms of higher education funding policy, I can’t help thinking Adonis Mark I might be better than Adonis Mark II.