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What does David Cameron’s book tell us about tuition fees and student numbers – and the relationship between the two?

  • 2 October 2019

On the last day of the Conservative Party Conference, Nick Hillman assesses David Cameron’s account of higher education policymaking under the Coalition.

A few days ago, I tweeted out some of the (few) things David Cameron has to say about tuition fees in his memoirs.

It may seem like his book was published weeks ago, but it actually came out just two weeks back. Understandably, most reviews have focused on the big picture rather than specific policy areas.

The overarching story told in the book about higher education funding makes intuitive sense. As David Cameron argues, it is generally (though not universally) accepted that the old state funding system did not allow for a well-funded mass higher education system whereas significantly higher fees can.

But my memory of higher education policymaking inside the Coalition is a little different and a little more complicated than the simple story he recounts.

According to the former Prime Minister’s take, he was persuaded by the arguments of people like David Willetts that the system should be bigger, with more students, and so came to accept the case for higher fees.

Although arguments about the optimal size of the higher education system had occurred within the Conservative Opposition prior to 2010, the clear chronology that pits expansion (not austerity) as the prime cause of higher fees is too neat and tidy.

After all, in 2010, when the decision to increase undergraduate tuition fees was made, the Government was being accused by the Labour Opposition of cutting the number of student places they had planned.

And when, a year later, those of us working in the Business Department tried to make the system more responsive to student demand, we had to do it through over-fiddly and now largely forgotten mechanisms specifically designed to hold down growth (though not forgotten by Colin McCaig of Sheffield Hallam University, who often writes about them).

There was the freedom from number controls for students with top grades, which introduced a limited market without injecting new places, and a complicated ‘core-and-margin’ policy to shift places from some higher education providers to cheaper alternatives.

Both mechanisms were designed to ensure the cake itself could not grow. Within Whitehall, I argued without success for the margin not to be cut from the core. There were fears at the time about the spiralling long-term cost to Government of institutions’ tendency to set fees at the maximum £9,000. This made even economically liberal people fearful of interventions that could let the market rip.

I recall sitting in a meeting in Number 10 at which I said a better approach would be to remove student number caps altogether: we don’t limit the number of sixth-form places, so why should we limit the number of higher education places, especially as more people wanted to study and institutions wanted to educate them?

My idea was batted away by a senior civil servant from Number 10, who was chairing the meeting, as too eccentric and too far from existing practice to merit proper discussion.

The conversation then returned to how we could continue to relax number controls within a fixed system. The contrast between the fixing of places in Hefce-funded institutions and the relative free-for-all among so-called ‘alternative providers’ encouraged some of the latter to grow, sometimes at the expense of quality and oversight. So restricting growth at traditional providers caused problems for the system as well as for individuals and individual institutions.

Yet, as the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts eventually won the argument for removing student number controls from traditional providers for two reasons.

First, as he showed in a publication for the Social Market Foundation launched to mark the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report in 2013, demand for higher education would continue to grow. Demographics and pressure for more equal educational opportunities would combine to create a huge head of steam that would eventually need releasing. It was a little like the arguments sometimes made for spending more on the NHS when you have an ageing population: the question is not whether to spend more but whether you prepare for the inevitable or let it hit you later on. It is rare that policy can be pinpointed so clearly to a single think-tank publication like Robbins Revisited but, as the Director of a think tank, I’m pleased to think it does sometimes happen.

Secondly, the Treasury searched hard but couldn’t find any more efficient or straightforward ways to tackle the country’s long-term productivity challenge than expanding the number of highly-skilled graduates. Many of us may feel uncomfortable about lobbying for higher education changes on largely financial grounds, when education is about so much more than money. But it is generally by far and away the most persuasive argument when talking to Treasury bean counters. (It even explains the recent announcement on the return of post-study work visas as well as the removal of student number controls.)

It’s worth remembering as a result that any future Government tempted to reimpose student number controls would be doing so in the face of the same two pressures: demographic changes and sluggish productivity.

Debating the story told by David Cameron’s autobiography is not just history or literary criticism. It is also a reminder that there is no intrinsic link between high tuition fees and no number controls because, for the early years of high fees, there were strict number controls. Or, to put it another way, it is not only promises to abolish tuition fees that could threaten the return of number caps.

Moreover, there is also no intrinsic link between high fees and expansion, given that some students – part-time and mature students – have proven to be more price sensitive then young school leavers. The total number of students has not grown since the higher fees were introduced in the way many people seem to think (see chart below from the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s website).

To conclude, if you still think the tripling of fees was always and obviously designed to let student number controls be relaxed, then try recalling what a surprise the removal of student number controls was when first announced in December 2013. If the story were as simple as the last-but-one Prime Minister’s account makes it sound, whereby higher fees were introduced in order to release more places, then no one would have been surprised by the move (and no one from the highly-intensive end of the sector would have shouted at me down the phone about it because they feared the extra costs might come at the expense of the research budget…!).

Of course, there is more than one way to look at any issue and even lengthy political memoirs have to cut corners in the coverage of long periods of time. And, however the story is told, it is true that in removing student number controls the Coalition were able to introduce a new higher education policy in the form of relaxing numbers that was even more important than their tripling of fees but which was arguably possible only because those fees had been tripled.

1 comment

  1. Miss Donna Chadwick says:

    Well written.

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