by Paul Goodman
On Wednesday afternoon, I picked up unease in the Commons from Conservative backbenchers about the Government's University admission plans.
Yesterday, this unhappiness was reflected during Business, Universities and Skills questions –
"Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): I have discussed on many occasions with the Minister for Universities and Science my view that Governments should avoid unnecessary interference in universities. The enhanced role given to OFFA is causing great unease in the sector and among some Government Members. Will the Secretary of State clarify the powers that OFFA has and how it will be expected to deploy them in relation to universities that set fees above £6,000?
Vince Cable: I think that there is complete clarity. I set out the position in a letter that I sent to OFFA some weeks ago, which is available and which I can certainly make available to the hon. Gentleman. It is absolutely right that, in return for being allowed to charge the higher fee levels, universities should make the maximum possible access available to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is a particular problem with traditional universities, where social mobility declined in the last decade. We are determined to overcome that."
"Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will not attempt to reduce the number of places at universities charging the full rate of £9,000 a year in order to oblige a greater proportion of students to attend universities that charge less?
Vince Cable: We certainly wish to encourage providers that charge highly competitive fee levels, but we also wish to encourage high-quality universities of the kind my hon. Friend described. I do not think that the two are in any way incompatible."
"Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): In the light of the excellent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), surely it is a matter for universities to decide who to admit on individual merit, not for us to have a central Government control model—a command and control model—that inevitably produces unfair discrimination. We are trying to build a big society, not recreate the Soviet Union, are we not?
Vince Cable: There is no command and control. Indeed, we are seeking to free universities from the complex, rather Stalinist system that we inherited. None the less, it is right that the Office for Fair Access judge universities that wish to charge the top rate according to its access criteria."
Wilson is a former Shadow Education Minister, and is currently PPS to Jeremy Hunt. James is a Vice-Chairman of the Party (and, I gather, raised the issue at Wednesday evening's meeting of the 1922 committee). Clappison is a senior backbencher. In other words, these aren't members of the awkward squad.
The MPs I've spoken to have a triple worry. First, that OFFA could damage good Universities by reducing their student numbers. Second, that students from better-off backgrounds could lose out unfairly in the competition for University places. Third, that the way to boost opportunities for students from poorer backgrounds is to make schools better rather than socially engineer Universities.
That Simon Hughes – who also asked Cable a question – is the Coalition's "University Access Tsar" will fuel Tory MPs' anxieties still further.