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Cameron relinquishes plans for ‘controversial’ education reforms

Higher Education Minister David Willetts

David Cameron and Nick Clegg have relinquished plans to reform the university system in such a way that would have seen the involvement of more private firms in the education of students.

The Higher Education Bill, originally intended to be announced in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech, has been indefinitely delayed.

The legislation was designed to facilitate private colleges, including large American firms, and to make it easier to set up new universities in Britain.

Higher Education Minister David Willetts had intended the Higher Education Bill to encourage greater competition and stricter standards within the university system, therefore driving down the price for individual students. Hence, under-performing institutions would be allowed to go bankrupt and would be replaced by more successful ones.

However, Prime Minister David Cameron is unwilling to progress into the territory of further radical reforms in public services, following the wave of public disapproval following the reorganisation of the NHS, welfare and schools.

Moreover, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg remains opposed to further higher education reform. Following the Liberal Democrat’s unsuccessful pledge against raising tuition fees after last year’s General Election, Clegg might not relish further political backlash or student protests on the subject of educational reform.

He is currently lobbying for the greatest amount of time to be given to the debate on the reform of the House of Lords in the next parliamentary session, and is therefore keen to see more controversial bills delayed.

The Bill follows previous high-profile changes to education, including raising tuition fees, reducing teaching budgets, student numbers and creating a more competitive market in places, which went through without legislation. Students in private universities can already access loans for tuition fees up to the sum of £6,000 per year.

As such, there have been suggestions that the Government will be reluctant to encourage further parliamentary struggles over measures that are already in place.

The National Union of Students  (NUS) accused the Government of a ‘hit and run’, claiming that major changes have been made without parliamentary scrutiny.

NUS President Liam Burns said: “Having lost the battle of public opinion over the trebling of tuition fees, the government is clearly not up for another public battle on its plans to sell off our education and will look to do it in private and under the radar instead.”

A Whitehall spokesperson said: “The Liberal Democrats were increasingly opposed to further reforms to universities after the recent decision to increase fees.”

Delaying the full reform would mean not pressing ahead with an expansion of new private sector providers. “Of course, we’ll see less competition in the short term, as there will now be a delay in those new entrants that were planning to enter the sector,” said BPP University College’s Chief Executive, Carl Lygo.

It has been claimed that an option for ministers would be to break up the current proposal and create a more tightly focused bill, which would provide a framework for increasing the intake of new university providers.

A University of Sussex student said: “If you believe that higher education is worth something, then you are willing to pay for it. Selling off higher education does not make it exclusive; everyone will end up in debt regardless of whether they pay for it themselves or whether they take loans from private companies.”

Last month a letter addressed to The Daily Telegraph signed by over 500 professors claimed that the commercialisation of education risked greater student drop-out rates and a decrease in academic standards.

According to academics such as Prof Alan Ryan, the former warden of New College, Oxford, the Government’s proposals would mean that institutions favour short-term financial gain over the provision of a decent education.

Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “The letter from so many eminent professors shows that those responsible for building our strong academic reputation have grave doubts about the Government’s proposals.”

The UCU lecturers’ union supported the delay to the plans, which they said “allowed for-profit companies increased access to UK higher education and taxpayers’ money”.

However, Mr Willetts, who backed the reforms whole-heartedly, has said that there will be further Cabinet discussion and that “there’s no final decision either way yet”.

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