March 29th, 2015


Q. When is a loan not a loan?

(A. When it's with friends, of course.)

From this article on university funding, a quotation from Nick Hillman, David Willetts’s former chief of staff and "one of the architects of the coalition’s higher education policy".

Hillman believes that there’s something disingenuous about the humanities’ complaints. “What the humanities are saying is that for the first time ever, history, for instance, is getting no money directly from the taxpayer. And they say that this means that the government doesn’t care about the humanities, which is not true. Because those £9,000 fees that are being racked up, many of them won’t end up being paid [because the students won’t earn more than the threshold where repayment kicks in] and so the burden will fall on the taxpayer in the end. The idea that there’s no public subsidy for historians is untrue, it’s just not direct any more.”

I don't think it's the humanities being disingenuous here! The way he talks, you'd think the £9,000 fees were never intended to pay for education at all, despite what was said by the coalition when they were introduced. According to Hillman, they're an indirect route by which the Government pays.

But hang on! If the Government was going to pay anyway, why go to the expense of setting up a loan company, pushing unpopular legislation through Parliament (on the grounds - specious, as it now seems - of economic necessity), and employing thousands of civil servants and various other go-betweens? Why not just, you know, recognize that producing educated graduates is an excellent investment for the economy and good for society as a whole, and fund education in the first place? (The fact that Hillman regards education spending as a 'subsidy' is very telling, I think. Watch out for the 'S' word creeping into other areas of discourse - health for example.)

There are two possible explanations, I think, by no means mutually exclusive. The first is that the architects of the coalition's education policy - such as Willetts and Hillman - are massively incompetent, and put in place a system that could never deliver the funding it was intended to. The other is that they wish to keep young people in debt, to ensure their political docility through their twenties, thirties and forties. The first is I think by now unarguable; the second looks increasingly so.