Who’s the minister who could kill or save a university? Oh dear, a Thatcherite

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”. The Guardian reports.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

Read the full article  Who’s the minister who could kill or save a university? Oh dear, a Thatcherite

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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