U-Turn If You Want To: The merits of changing your mind

There’s been a lot of coverage of the changes to the NHS reforms announced today. In particular, the media have focused on the notion that it is “yet another U-turn” by the government in a long list of changed policies.

The government won’t say it as it would look stroppy, but I suspect a lot of them are thinking the following:

You said you wanted changes, and we made them. Now you’re attacking us for making changes. What do you want us to do?

It’s a fair point. Most pieces of legislation under any government which are attacked by the other side are deemed “controversial”. The difference here is that rather than ploughing ahead (which would have been politically difficult) the government announced a “listening exercise” consulting medical personnel, and then followed the suggestions.

I don’t think a U-turn is a bad thing in many scenarios, particularly where there has been extended debate. I’d go as far as to say that in certain circumstances parties should be praised for U-turns – recognising faults in policies and doing something about it. But is it any wonder that other policies will be battered through even if they’re unpopular when we attack people for doing the opposite? Does anyone recall ID cards – a hugely unpopular scheme which was floated for years before it was scrapped? By all means attack attempts to smash unwanted legislation through, and if they do change their minds feel free to remind the public how long it took.

But government response to public demand should be celebrated, not attacked.

Universities, Fees, and Privatisation

Today it was announced that a new university will be launched without any government funding. Instead, the New College of the Humanities will be charging £18,000 tuition fees.

Understandably, alarm bells are ringing for a lot of people. The general train of thought is that the following will happen:

  1. Universities such as this, despite the lack of government funding, will be able to attract the best lecturers and subsequently get the best results
  2. Only the rich will be able to afford these fees
  3. Anyone unable to afford the fees will be unable to have the same education

Obviously it’s incredibly difficult to dismiss these claims so I won’t even try. I think there is an element of “wait and see”, but it is a worrying possibility. It might also be worth bearing in mind that we still have Oxford and Cambridge – two of the leading universities in the world, and both state funded. It would take quite a lot to knock those two off the top spot.

I suspect a lot of the outrage will obscure the debate over why this university is being set-up. Many will argue that it is a lack of funding and blame the cuts, not to mention linking it with an apparent creeping “privatisation” of universities associated with increased tuition fees. But I was intrigued by this quote from the founder Professor AC Grayling:

The £9,000 cap is completely unsustainable. The true cost is way more and that ceiling is going to have to be burst.

Despite the protests over raising the fees cap, it seems there is an argument that it is simply not enough.

It’s often forgotten that the universities lobbied for increased fees, and that several wanted the cap removed altogether – factors worth remembering when thinking about this issue.

Details of this new university (or rather, college) seem a bit sketchy. One thing that hasn’t been covered is whether it will conduct research in the same way as state-funded universities. My reading of the news reports suggests otherwise, and that these will be purely educational establishments.

I am sure it varies between subjects, but I imagine that to some extent traditional universities are a little torn between the two elements of research and tuition. This is arguably inevitable – you have men and women who are leaders in their fields attempting to impart their knowledge to those who have just finished A-levels whilst simultaneously conducting their own research into incredibly advanced theories and concepts.

I can’t help but wonder whether the separation of research and tuition is something we’re likely to see spreading, or whether the traditional model will survive. As I say, I’m sure it varies from subject to subject – the sciences almost certainly benefit from combining education and research. But I’m curious as to where this split will lead for the humanities.