by Robyn Banks

This week, former education minister Lord Adonis decided to reopen a debate that was seemingly long-dead. During a report to a House of Lords Committee, he stated that the decision to allow polytechnics to become universities 25 years ago was “a very serious mistake”. This problematic claim reveals the real views of someone who has lately been seen as posing significant challenges of the higher education sector’s issues.

In fairness, he does continue to do so on some fronts. Over the summer Adonis has attacked numerous Vice Chancellors on their pay and said that tuition fees and the loan system should be scrapped (despite being the minister who raised fees under the Blair government). However, this most recent statement shows is that this Adonis is not quite the divine figure his name would suggest. Whilst he has acknowledged that he created the mess in the tuition fees system by raising them in the first place, he has also admitted that the reasoning behind his wish to drop them isn’t for the benefit of students. Rather, it is because fees are “politically diseased” that “they should be abolished entirely”. We should end these measures not because they place a horrific financial burden on students, but because the establishment is desperately looking for a way to regain the support of people abandoned by the system it created. Priorities, people.

This two tier system would, in the short term at least, see the poorest students gravitating towards less-well-equipped institutions

The change of name from polytechnics to universities in the ‘90s improved equality between higher education institutions in the UK. Before the change there was a stigma that lingered between those who went to polys and those who went to universities. Following through on Adonis’ statement and reversing this decision would recreate a two tier system in UK higher education.

As he suggests, the new polys would likely charge less in tuition fees, with two major consequences. They would see an increase in applications from students who are looking to avoid the high levels of debts associated with going to a university, especially those from working class backgrounds. And they would in effect suffer a major funding cut. Under the current system tuition fees represent a majority of the income for universities due to the cuts in government funding since 2010. Forcing institutions to cut their fees could create a black hole in their finances which would then have to be filled either by students paying more in other areas, e.g. their first year accommodation, or through the cutting of courses and the facilities on their campuses. The current system is already forcing campuses closures and staff cuts, so we can only imagine the impacts of a large group of universities taking simultaneous hits to their incomes.


Anglia Ruskin University – East Anglia’s former Polytechnic. Credit: Andrew Dunn

On top of this, the stigma many of those who went to the old polys experienced would then return, and carry through to the workplace. Poly students (who, remember, are likely to be predominantly from less-well-off backgrounds) will be less likely to get jobs in certain fields, and will have fewer opportunities to move on to postgraduate study at universities. This two tier system would, in the short term at least, see the poorest students gravitating towards less-well-equipped institutions with a narrower offer of courses, exacerbating the existing class divides and prejudices in our society.

What Adonis proposes is that the higher education system revert back to the way it was when he was studying and when he was politically significant. This won’t help to make the system more accessible, as he has claimed he wants to be, but even more unequal than it already is. The cure that is really needed is to finally admit the system is broken and reinstate fully free and funded higher education, something that people like Adonis would never support due to their commitments to their free market. Adonis’ most recent comments show his real concerns. His suggested reforms aren’t for the benefit of students but for the benefit of the political establishment that he is a part of. If he was really interested in the welfare of students he wouldn’t have decided to raise fees in the first place, and wouldn’t have remained silent until now, when he has started to find himself on the wrong side of history.

Featured image credit: Cicero Group

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