Regulate, bully, dictate: more bad news for the student experience

I don’t know which upsets me more: the Westminster government’s persistent posturing on student access and fees, or the limp response of higher education institutions to it.

All I know for certain is that each will reduce the quality of the student experience by diverting effort and funds from the front line.

On the one hand we have universities that should know better pretending that a deferred student contribution is an upfront fee. This can be the only explanation for Cambridge’s idea of reduced fees for students from poorer families.

Let’s just get this straight once and for all: deferred contributions do not dissuade students from ANY FAMILY from going to ANY university. You pay NOTHING upfront and you may well end up paying nothing for a lifetime – unless you earn good money later.

Turning now to the government: using higher fees to bully universities into submission over access is pitiable. As for Nick Clegg’s flaccid “warning” to vice chancellors that they mustn’t accept students who are qualified to learn (from whatever “background”), but should instead act as instruments to increase social equality, and sad Simon’s bleat that universities currently educate too many students who went to private schools — well, just lay off, will you?

Why not ask Tesco and Sainsbury’s to create more equality, and Waitrose to reduce the number of its customers from better-off homes — if you think it’s a good thing?

But all this meddling has a function, and it’s nothing to do with the higher education student experience, or access, or social equality. It’s primarily to generate work for quangos, bureaucrats, regulators, and checkers of diversity targets (all of which are parasitic on higher education and bleed strength from teaching and learning). Expect much more red tape in the form of annual access agreements drafted by administrative apparatchiks and pored over by low ranking officials whose main aim in life is to defy common sense.

The interfering also covers up the government’s lack of political will to solve the real problem — a desperately weak state school system that has failed its customers badly. And it serves to make the government look as if it’s doing something tough. But could someone kindly tell them that hitting a victim who seems unwilling or unable to hit back is hardly a laudable activity?

Gosh, and now we’re going to get a beefed-up regulator. The office for fair access has been a failure, according to David Willetts. It hasn’t stopped universities accepting clever students who have a reasonable chance of success but who come from privileged homes. It hasn’t changed anything. Oh dear.

So we’ll do what governments do with failed quangos: give it more power, more staff, and more money, of course.

And the robust response from the Director General of the Russell Group? Only slightly re-phrased to make her point less obscure, it amounts to: “Sorry, David, we’ll try harder to do you what you want, but we’re only universities after all”.

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