We are now on our third universities minister since the Conservatives shed their pesky Liberal Democrat partners following the 2015 election. The first two were victims of the Brexit Moloch. First up was Jo Johnson, who piloted the Higher Education and Research Act through parliament, only to be rewarded with relegation as minister for London. He resigned in the summer and is now a fully signed-up supporter of the “people’s vote”.
Next up was Sam Gyimah, who in the end found the contradiction between his responsibility to do the best by universities and the damage Brexit would cause too much to take and also resigned. He, too, supports a second referendum.
Now we have Chris Skidmore MP, a Christ Church, Oxford, old boy and popular historian. But it is doubtful whether his books on Queen Elizabeth 1 and Robert Dudley or Richard III indicate much empathy for universities caught up in the meltdown of a flawed higher education “market”.
The signs are not good. Skidmore is a born-again Thatcherite, a founding member of the rightwing Free Enterprise Group of Tory MPs and a co-author of the notorious Britannia Unchained, a polemic in favour of the smallest possible state. To be fair, he is said to have voted remain in the 2016 referendum.
But the issue is not Brexit, just for a moment. It is that Skidmore will be the minister who receives the report of the Augar committee on fees and funding, probably in February. Augar always faced a dilemma, like Brexit. Just as we can’t have our cake and eat it, so we can’t move back to a more managed and calmer system of higher education while retaining a dynamic but damaging market.
There are second-order issues on which Augar can make useful recommendations, such as tweaking student loan repayments by graduates, or boosting grants for poorer students. But the big issue that cannot be fudged is fees, which Labour promises to abolish.
The committee’s widely trailed recommendation is to reduce the maximum fee to £6,500. The immediate effect would be to plunge some universities into financial crisis, unless the government filled the gap with increased public funding. This is close to unimaginable. Cuts in school budgets have become a key political battleground. Universities are widely seen as having never had it so good since 2010, while further education has endured savage cuts, a view that becomes irresistible if student loans have to be accounted for as public spending rather than hidden off-balance sheet.
But the signs of market meltdown are everywhere: over-borrowing by some universities (too many cranes on campus), dangerous deficits even with a £9,000 fee, dumbing down of “good” degrees, an explosion of unconditional offers.
What will the government do? Allow significant institutions to go bankrupt? The regulator, the Office for Students, has neither the will nor the power to intervene, as the former funding council did, to provide bridging support and orchestrate mergers. The decision whether to let universities go under will end up on the minister’s desk.
Is the government prepared to crack down on the game-playing that accompanies the National Student Survey, the Teaching Excellence Framework and rankings generally, as Ofsted is doing in schools? That is not likely to appeal to a small-state Skidmore opposed to restrictions on the free market.
Then there is a final problem. As the state has accumulated ever-greater powers, the turnover of responsible ministers has accelerated. David Willetts, for whom Skidmore was once a policy adviser, was universities minister for the full span of the coalition government, and had spent even longer as a shadow minister. Skidmore will barely have time to read his brief before facing key decisions, at a time when black-hole Brexit is sucking in all the government’s energy. Let us hope he is a quick learner.