Boris Johnson’s least likely personal motto is “silence is golden”, but for a while it seemed to fit his younger brother, Jo – the man tasked with putting together the Conservative Manifesto before the last election. The MP for Orpington believed that discretion was part of the brief, doubtless rightly, and took a vow of silence that would not have been out of place in the Grande Chartreuse.
Since then, he has been promoted to Universities Minister, and yesterday reminded the sector that his claustral days are over. Speaking during and after a Universities UK Conference, he said that new universities should not be required to have their degrees validated by existing ones. Dismissing this present arrangement as “akin to Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant”, he went on to tell the Financial Times that “we need to bust this system right open”.
Johnson was referring to private universities, of which there are roughly 140 in the country. But if validation is not to be required, how will students know which new university is a good university? There are arguments for either view but, while it would be an exaggeration to claim that that the present system might have been designed to bar new entrants, Johnson was certainly right to suggest that it has turned into a bit of a cartel. He wants “a more level playing field” and a more responsive market: “it’s a bit slow at the moment,” he said.
He should develop that way of thinking. Tuition fees have been a success in many ways: for example, students from low income background are more likely than ever to apply to University. The number of young people going overall has increased; almost 600,000 of them applied last year. None the less, as we put it in the ConservativeHome Manifesto, ‘while taxpayers and students bear all the risk, there is little sign of the promised savings to the public purseor of the competitive and innovative education market that we were promised’.
Furthermore, “forcing ever larger numbers of people through the ‘degree mill’ just so that they can access trades and professions that used to be open to non-graduates is of dubious value”. So if Johnson really wants a better-functioning market in higher education, he should ponder new means of incentivising would-be students to assess the value of institutions and courses on offer – regardless of whether or not he reforms the requirements for validation.
One of these would be replacing the current system of tuition fees and loans with a commission system, in which graduates pay a commission to their university on their earnings for a fixed number of years, or up to a fixed total amount, or a mix of both. This would allow the market to do better what markets do well: empower the good to drive out the bad.
This would doubtless reduce the size of the higher education sector, since some would-be students would opt for the jobs market instead – thus allowing the state, in turn, to move more resources into vocational education. Sure, the Government has no mandate for such radical change now – which is why Johnson should work to get the idea, since it wasn’t in that last manifesto, into the next one.