When the BBC website invited people to ‘find out their number’ we were awaiting the birth of seventh billionth person on Earth. To generate your unique number you entered a seemingly random series of numbers into the boxes on the screen and presto, you’ve got your number. (Mine’s 3,298,020, 619 by the way.) At the time I was reading the – then – ongoing saga of student fees and I can’t help but wonder whether David Willets used a similar system to calculate the budget for the higher education sector, and depending on how many students there are and what grades they may get, the calculations change. Willets worked on the basis of most institutions charging £7,500 but allowed universities to go up to £9,000. Unsurprisingly most institutions went for £9,000 to plug the funding gap left by the removal of most of the block teaching grant. As this failure to play the game on the part of the HEIs made the Government look ever so slightly out of touch, Willets’ next gambit was to effectively barter more places if fees were reduced for good students. MPs were arguing that the imposition of the new fee structure should be delayed. Universities are engaging in a mission to explain that £9,000 a year doesn’t actually mean £9,000 a year in repayments. (It does mean that you will owe more and be in debt for longer so don’t even think about a mortgage. You’re living with Mum and Dad for the rest of their natural.) The thing which strikes me is that in all the discussion between BIS and the HEIs that no one seems to be considering the student which is rather odd as Willets’ rationale for the whole shambles is to increase competitiveness and consumer choice.
Just a passing thought on the market. Who actually determines the worth of a degree? The HEIs may set the level but surely it’s employers who decide from which HEIs they prefer to take their applicants? And how much have the employers been involved in the process? What basis do they decide that X provide good degrees and Y doesn’t?