Gold star for Boris

by Stephen Tall on March 6, 2007

It pains me to write it, but Boris Johnson’s ideas for British higher education – outlined in today’s Grauniad – are light years ahead of current Lib Dem policy. Once you get past the usual ‘What-ho!’ flummery, his vision for the value of universities is spot-on:

Call me starry-eyed, but I still think the main point of a university education is to achieve a personal intellectual transformation, and who knows, an emotional and spiritual transformation as well. The evidence seems to be that this transformation is, additionally, of huge economic importance. If Universities UK says our universities contribute £45bn to the economy, I am not going to quibble.

If you ask what is our Conservative vision for the future of these universities, it is that Britain should be the Athens of the global economy, the place any intelligent person might think of going for a civilised and valuable education – just as people across the ancient world would go to study in Athens.

Boris brings out a crucial aspect too frequently ignored by the Lib Dems. Higher education is now a global enterprise – British universities now compete for talent, both among students and academics, on an international basis. Without the resources to compete, our domestic universities will become increasingly marginalised, and increasingly unable to serve the needs of our own population. This would be a tragedy for the British economy. But, as importantly, it would jeopardise the opportunities of future students who need access to educational excellence.

Lib Dems are (rightly) concerned to talk about the value of a free higher education – and tuition ‘fees’ are now, in effect, free at the point of use, repayable only after graduation and once a student is earning a living wage. It’s a point Boris faces head on:

Anyone who has faced an audience of students lately will know that feelings are still running high, and that the increase in applications this year is by no means held to be reassuring (“Why are you introducing this irrelevant statistic?” as one young Dave Spart testily interrupted). We need to crack on with the debate; we need to educate and inform. But any further reform of the fee regime must satisfy some difficult tests. It must encourage the widening of participation, enable needs-blind admission and it must be done in such a way as to avoid a huge increase in public spending.

It’s a debate which needs to be had, and had honestly.