I can’t add much to Ed West’s account of the new NUS president’s views of higher education — that equality and widening access must be prioritised “at the expense of quality if necessary” — except to put his quote in the context of these figures and this OECD chart of English schoolpupils’ cognitive abilities compared to their exam results. The most interesting thing about Liam Burns’ views is that he admits there is a trade-off between quality and equality, rather than trying to have it both ways as most politicians do. It’s the most naked admission I’ve seen yet of the contemporary left’s preference for equality over meritocracy, which I have argued delivers neither.
We can disagree with Burns without endorsing the market fundamentalism that would make higher education the preserve of the mediocre wealthy and a handful of brilliant scholar boys. I would suggest that, if savings must be made, universities should cut places rather than treble tuition fees. A glance at the dropout rates for Scottish universities suggests that there are a lot of people at university wasting their time (even if many of those, as Burns plausibly suggests, would stay on if grants were restored, which could also become possible if we cut places). We are also wasting their time by telling them this is their best, or only, option. I don’t know quite how, when and why the idea that it was better to do something academic than something technical came about — it seems such a perversion of so much of what the Victorians achieved — but the government and schools should now do all they can to equalise the two (as in Germany, which uncoincidentally has retained a high-value manufacturing base). Bear in mind also that foreign students, attracted by the prestige of British universities, are heavily subsidising native ones. If Johnny Chinaman decides that our universities are being devalued for some obscure domestic political reason, he will happily decamp to another European, American or Australian one and take his tens of thousands of pounds a year with him.
By limiting places (while also making radical changes to schools) instead of raising fees, we could preserve high academic standards and promote vocational alternatives, without forcing unrich, academically gifted but debt-wary potential students away from the idea of university.