20 Sep 2010

How to fill the black hole in higher education funding

The Comprehensive Spending Review will spell out the size of the funding gap in higher education on 20 October. But you won’t get the government’s plan for filling that hole, it’s reaction to Browne’s report (published 11 October), until some time later, probably before Christmas.

The CSR will effectively announce a huge chunk (perhaps more than half) of the teaching grant will go, perhaps a quarter of the research grant. How that mighty hole is filled won’t be answered until later and boy do they need time for this.

The Business Department, No. 10, the Treasury are all modelling possible schemes – there’s more modelling than an Airfix convention. They’re all trying to come up with something that each coalition partner can sell to its party.

The Lib Dems want something that looks least like straightforward variable tuition fees, not least because nearly every one of their MPs signed a cast-iron pledge not to go that way. The Tories want something that can’t be portrayed as a new tax and, from their perspective, another imposition on the middle classes.

Lib Dem MPs got a coalition agreement waiver allowing them to abstain if the system settled on wasn’t acceptable. But it wouldn’t look good at all and it’s not what Lib Dem ministers are aiming for. If you got to that position and most Lib Dem MPs did abstain on a measure they didn’t like, it would only take 20 or so rebels to vote against it and the measure could be in serious trouble in the Commons.

Anyway, you won’t hear anything about this possible slow train crash in Nick Clegg’s speech this afternoon and there are Herculean efforts going on to avoid it. But it would be the biggest policy clash so far in the Coalition and no-one has yet worked out how to avoid it.

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