Last night, The Telegraph reported that the expected Higher Education Bill is being dropped, or at least delayed until later in the Parliament. This news must be greeted with caution and scepticism until we know the facts. It is clear that the Government has made no final decision, but the fact that this could be the direction of travel is very revealing. In lieu of further information, we can however assess what we know and what it might mean.
1) Higher Education has been a horribly thorny issue for the Coalition since Day 1 and the botched response to Browne and the vote on fees has left both parties feeling bruised and Nick Clegg very vulnerable on the issue. The Telegraph reports that the Government is starting to tire of these far-reaching public sector reforms that are proving to be very politically problematic. It is easy to see how in this context of waning enthusiasm for reform and Lib Dem’s blocking, the HE Bill could be considered for dumping.
2) Dropping the Bill in this way would be a politically damaging move in itself, so it is a huge decision to make. It will be billed as a ‘U-turn’ and will unavoidably eat in to the Government’s political capital. It is worse for David Willetts however; as he is as closely linked to the plans as it is possible to get in politics. Backing down now will cause him real political damage.
3) Delaying is difficult. There are reports that suggest the Bill will simply be moved out of the 2012 legislative session and re-appear in 2013 or later, rather than being completely dumped or kicked into the next Parliament. This creates separate political problems, as the White Paper will have been a distant memory by then and any political momentum that David Willetts had to introduce his reforms will be entirely lost. By the next legislative session, or beyond, there will be a real critical mass of protest to the proposals and through every medium possible. There are already books, films, countless column inches – we’ll probably even have ‘David Willetts: The Musical’ by 2013/14. A Bill at such a later date would surely be dead on arrival, particularly as we get closer to an election that will see the two Coalition parties start to naturally drift apart.
4) And now the note of caution. The vast majority of Government plans for HE can still be achieved without primary legislation. Many thought the HE Bill, if it did appear, would be one of the shortest in memory. Make no mistake about it; the Coalition is already implementing radical reforms to HE without a Bill. Just look at fees (vote in Parliament needed but no Bill) or AAB/core & margin student number controls (harnessing the power of bureaucracy for ideological ends). Many were looking forward to the opportunity that the Bill would give for a further far-reaching public debate about the Government’s HE reforms. Labour were gearing up for a fight and Lords of every stripe will have wanted to have their say. Not to mention NUS, UCU, and the HE sector itself that had all assumed the Bill would provide a real opportunity for a Last Stand against the Government’s plans. Therefore the political calculation by the Government might in fact be that not having a Bill, and in so doing opening themselves up to accusations of a ‘U-turn’, is in fact preferable to the sheer noise that would have accompanied the introduction of a Bill and the energy and political capital needed to battle it through Parliament. Better to do what they can with the powers available to them, and much more quietly. In 2015 when we look back at everything that the Coalition did to higher education we may in fact rue the decision to dump the Bill.