The policy of trebling tuition fees while cutting teaching grant by 80% is so potentially damaging to universities, particularly the arts, humanities and social sciences, that there seem to be only two possible explanations. The first is that the government simply does not know what is doing. That is unlikely. All the ministers involved have had the benefits of a top-notch university education that will have equipped them with all the skills they need to analyse the situation rigorously and dispassionately. They will be aware that the cuts in teaching grant will make it impossible for all but a very few institutions to continue offering all but the most reliably “popular” of degrees. They will be aware that a predictable income stream is a crucial foundation for successful intellectual work to be sustained down the generations, both in teaching and research. So we have to ask, why are they doing this?
A second possibility is that the government is deliberately creating conditions in which the only way that many departments and institutions can survive is to become fully privatised. Are there private education companies ready and waiting to reap rich returns from selling degrees? There would probably be no shortage of willing investors. The market for degrees in popular arts, humanities and social sciences courses could well be a highly lucrative one, although science degrees, with their high costs of equipment and infra-structure, may be less so. Does this explain why the government is cutting all direct funding for teaching arts, humanities and social sciences, while continuing to subsidise the laboratory costs of science teaching? We have no way of knowing whether or not full privatisation is an intended or unintended consequence of the government’s plans. But it does begin to look like the only plausible explanation for a policy that claims to be placing universities on a sustainable financial basis while at the same time removing one plank of the income stream that ensures their stability. It would also explain why this policy is being rushed through in the face of so much opposition and with so little chance for public debate, in advance of the government’s own White Paper on higher education.
[EDIT: For evidence of Tory thinking on universities, see this 2003 piece by Michael Gove.]
[EDIT 2: For further elaboration of this argument see this piece by Alan Finlayson at Open Democracy]