Who has had a good week (heading for a first) and who has had a bad week (heading for a fail)?
Heading for a First … Vince Cable
It’s been a rare week for Vince Cable: he hasn’t broken a pledge or reneged on another manifesto promise. But this week, he actually managed to get through Universities UK conference without upsetting every single vice-chancellor in the room – a feat he has sadly managed in previous public speeches to vice-chancellors, most notably at the HEFCE conference in Birmingham where he turned up over an hour late, delivered a withering, finger-wagging speech before refusing to take questions (which had previously been agreed) and was then left to eat his sandwiches alone as the conference full of vice-chancellors either politely ignored him or simply didn’t realise he’d stomped off alone.
But in a minor turnaround, the secretary of state managed to have a constructive dialogue with VCs at their annual conference at Royal Holloway. He will have been heartened further by news that, following the publication of the higher education white paper, a dozen or so as yet unnamed institutions have asked the Office for Fair Access about lowering their tuition fee. Although it still leaves the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills a long way short of its Treasury target – which erroneously predicted and budgeted for an average fee of £7,500 – it does at least provide the secretary of state with a shred of good news before the Liberal Democrat party conference in Birmingham later this month. Who knows, the Lib Dems could still reach double digits in the polls once again – but I’m not holding my breath.
Heading for a Fail … the UK economy
This week we heard news that the UK had slipped down yet another international league table. No, it wasn’t George Osborne having to revise our growth figures down again, or further bad news that youth unemployment has risen once more – both of which also happened – but it was news from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its latest publication, Education at a Glance, showed that the UK has spent just 1.2% of its GDP on higher education, falling further behind the OCED average (1.5%).
Higher education spending may not have secured the same media coverage or political scrutiny as the growth figures or rising unemployment, but its link to both is significant. For a government so patently lacking a credible growth strategy, spending in higher education delivers more than £6 for every single £1 spent – but the problem for the coalition is the time lag before the return is realised. So, faced with long term growth, or the more immediate challenge of eliminating the deficit by the end of this Parliament, short-termism has triumphed once again.
It’s not often you get Wendy Piatt and Sally Hunt singing the same tune, but the reaction to this news from the OECD was one of those rare occasions where the Russell Group and the University and College Union were united. The Russell Group rightly pointed out that such diminishing public investment in higher education risks jeopardising the international reputation of our leading, and I would argue our entire, higher education system. Sally Hunt rightly pointed out that we need to re-emphasise the relationship between education and skills and our economy.
David Cameron is increasingly being accused of making the same mistakes as the Thatcher government of the 1980s. Given we saw a decade of cuts to our universities under the Iron Lady, it appears, when it comes to higher education spending, that accusation certainly holds true.