The true significance of revelations to the Leveson inquiry is not (just) that journalists on tabloid papers in general, and News International ones in particular, behave badly – or even that relations between politicians and the media are far too cosy. It is that politics has become a branch of the media. This explains successive fiascos – aircraft carriers with no aircraft, or tough immigration talk while passengers either swelter in long queues or are waved through without passport checks.

The problem is that ministers love to launch initiatives to catch the headlines. But they have almost no interest in sound public administration. When things don’t work out as the headlines promised, it’s either the turn of someone down the line to be scapegoated (if the political stakes are high) or the initiative runs into the sand.

It is the second fate that is overtaking the government’s higher education reforms. Fractured from the start by the fault-line in the coalition, they were always likely to get tangled up in a mass of contradictions – cutting university funding while increasing public expenditure, promising freedom while tightening regulation.

Now these reforms are in danger of remaining half-baked. To implement them properly requires legislation. But media politics always trumps good public administration. So no room was found in a thin Queen’s Speech for a bill because higher education has become a toxic issue.

Instead, the word has gone out that legislation is not really needed, as civil servants have been to trawl through past laws and regulations for long-forgotten powers. It won’t wash. Legislation is needed for three reasons. First, some means have to be found to cap student numbers. Students are entitled to state loans to pay their fees. But the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) will have less and less power to “fine” over-recruiting universities – because in future some will receive virtually no money from Hefce.

Second, Hefce has been airily designated as “lead regulator”. But it is a funding body, not a planning one. Its assumed regulatory powers derive from its responsibility to ensure public money is properly spent.

In future, universities without much research funding and/or expensive science subjects will derive nearly all their income from non-Hefce sources; counter-intuitively, it is the “top” universities that will remain in thrall to direct public funding. If ministers want Hefce to act more as the regulator of a quasi-privatised HE sector, they have to give it as least some of the tools to do the job.

Finally, if ministers plan to encourage more private providers, they need to establish a proper system of regulation. There are no restrictions on ownership of private HE institutions. Indeed degree-awarding powers, in effect, have become tradeable, as the recent change in ownership of the College of Law shows.

Meanwhile, the reforms pursue a wayward direction. Everyone expected the “core-margin” principle, extra places for which lower-fee institutions could compete, to be expanded. Instead, 20,000 contestable places this year have been cut to 5,000 next, barely worth bothering about. But the “free” market in students with AAB grades at A-level has been extended to students with ABB grades. It seems the government wants a more privileged and smaller higher education system – more (posh) Exeters and fewer (cheap) London Mets. Has anyone told Nick Clegg, as he witters on about inequality and mobility?

However, there is a much greater danger. In the end the new system will be made to sort-of work, just as aircraft will eventually be found for the new aircraft carriers and the UK Border Agency will square the circle on immigration controls.

But there seems to be no serious consideration of where all this is heading. The nearest thing to what we are aiming to create exists in the US. But the American system is in crisis. Its symptoms are sky-high fees combined with dwindling job opportunities for graduates, deep suspicion of for-profit providers, even an erosion of faith in a college education’s contribution to the American dream. Do we really want to go there – but on even worse terms, as we would with price-insensitive fees, a more depressed economy and inadequate regulation?

• Peter Scott is professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education

Paul Champion

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