Some national newspaper columnists may be better than Nick Timothy and some may be worse. But none are more interesting to ConservativeHome than he is, and the reason is nothing to do with him having formerly columnised for us. Rather, it is that what he writes tells us what the Government’s manifesto pledges mean in practice – or, rather, would have meant had Theresa May gained a proper working majority. (His role in ensuring that she didn’t, and that of others too, is a matter for another day.)
Consider universities. The manifesto says, somewhat blandly, that “to ensure that further, technical and higher education institutions are treated fairly, we will also launch a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole, looking at how we can ensure that students get access to financial support that offers value for money, is available across different routes and encourages the development of the skills we need as a country”.
In his Daily Telegraph column yesterday, Timothy spelt out what that funding review should, in his view, mean. Reform would be built on four pillars. First, a “single financial entitlement” for all appropriately-qualified young people, regardless of whether they want to enter higher or technical education. Second, capped fees at a lower level for this entitlement for the latter, in order to encourge more students to take the technical rather than the university route: these would be repayable. Third, new techical colleges to take the increased numbers of young people who would opt for vocational rather than academic education after such changes. And, finally, more rigorous qualifications for these colleges: “Ministers would need to introduce high-quality technical qualifications that have not existed since the decline of HNCs and HNDs in the Eighties and Nineties”.
This programme will meet objections. One is that new loans for technical education, in addition to those already available for higher education, would be another cost to the taxpayer at a time when money is tight. Timothy’s solution is to force some universities to convert into technical colleges. This would be a drastic supplement to Jo Johnson’s scheme, now in force, to ensure the publication of more information about individual universities – which should have the effect over time of curbing student recruitment to the poorer-performing ones. Timothy’s plan would mean a knuckle-down fight with the universities instead. He writes that his ideas would make them “more likely to compete on price”, but capping might well ensure new cartels in the new colleges. And some of problems with student debt that he castigates would endure, such as marginal tax rises as earnings increase.
Neither the new Downing Street team nor Justine Greening nor Greg Clark – the Education and Business departments both have an interest in higher education – are likely to be up for this quicker route to change. Letting the worst-performing universities wither on the vine, as fewer students go to them over time, will surely be a more attractive proposition to them than the mother of all rows with Vice-Chancellors. Better, they are likely to conclude, to mirror the eventual contraction or closure of some universities with a more gradual opening and expansion of the new technology colleges which the manifesto promises. Such a course of action would also be more attractive to the Treasury and the whips. The first would rather not shell out a lot of new money for loans upfront. The second would be nervous of backbench reaction were MPs to be lobbied by Vice-Chancellors, especially if new legislation is needed.
The view of young people might be different. Jeremy Corbyn would accuse the Government of seeking to slash opportunities for them, were it to be seen to be seeking to reduce university places. But voters are not stupid at any age. Young people know that a significant proportion of graduates take jobs below degree level (one survey suggested half), that there is rampant grade inflation (the proportion of students gaining firsts is at a record high), and that employers complain that graduates aren’t “up to the job”. No wonder that applications for higher education seem to be dipping, albeit from a very high level. And although those alarming debt figures are largely irrelevant – as we have argued recently – students can scarcely be blamed for not liking them. Meanwhile, what about the two-thirds of young people who are not in higher education at all? They get far less out of the present set-up than students.
There are the openings of an appeal to a new generation of younger voters here, which is worth mulling in the aftermath of the publication of yesterday’s A-level results. This site put the case for a major resource shift to vocational education three years ago, in our ConservativeHome manifesto. Such a beefing-up ought to be attractive to a mass of young voters, if only it can be sold with focus and enthusiasm.
Timothy has blown the cover off what the Government would have done were he still in place – if he could have got his plan past Ministers, and Theresa May to be sitting on a comfortable majority. The Government will now have to proceed more cautiously, which it might well have done anyway. Were it possible to run pilots for the single financial entitlement, or something like it, this should happen. And the Government should have a look at ideas floated on this site on how to help University students with their living costs.