The precarious question of what to do with the cap on university top-up fees has been swept under institutional and political carpets for too long. It is the question that could unlock a whole array of other problems in the sector, and almost no one who matters wants to be seen considering it.
But with an election on the horizon – however distant it may be now – there is some feverish fees activity going on behind the scenes. Westminster insiders tell me that the Government is poised to review the impact of the new £3,000 fees, in advance of the big 2009 review. This is a blatant piece of political game-playing – kicking the ball that sparked such a humiliating rebellion three years ago firmly into the long grass, while appearing to be getting to the heart of voters' potential concerns about student debt.
Whatever the motivation, such a review could be highly useful if it gets the sector moving. The furore over GM crops showed that if one does not wade into the debate in time, an issue can become so emotive that a sensible discussion is almost impossible. The same will be true of top-up fees.
If we wait until 2009 and mutely watch the publication of endless research commissioned to prove that fees put underprivileged pupils off higher education, without stumping up serious evidence to the contrary, the argument will be done and dusted. Ministers will be too scared of the public and of their own MPs to attempt pushing fees any higher. That will be that.
There's no denying that there is still work to do to encourage more young people from poorer backgrounds to enter higher education. (And, although ministers like to dump this problem accusingly on the doorsteps of vice-chancellors, we all know that much of the work needs to start much earlier on in the education system.) Yet the fact remains that, contrary to all the doom-mongering, thus far university applications have continued to rise across the social spectrum following the introduction of the £3,000 fee. Surely this is worth talking about?
Interestingly, the National Union of Students is preparing to grab the debate by the scruff of the neck and abandon its outright opposition to top-up fees. In a recent speech to the NUS campaigns convention, the NUS president Gemma Tumelty warned that students would be "stranded on the margins" if they battled on for free higher education. A realistic campaign would have to focus on keeping the cap rather than ditching fees altogether. "Do we really think we can win the argument that those who have benefited most from a university education shouldn't pay more?" she demanded sensibly.
For some time, it has seemed likely that the Liberal Democrats would shift in a similar direction. Privately, key figures in the party were assuring university heads that they agreed that the party's no-fees commitment was out of touch. They expressed confidence that, while some hardliners were proving a little tricky to persuade, the policy would be changed.
However, with the Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell announcing flatly in his conference speech in Brighton that the Government was wrong on fees, it appears that the lure of the student vote may have won out in the end.
So, what of vice-chancellors and top-up fees? Most tend to wince at the mere mention of the name, pointing out with pursed lips that that the "correct" term is "variable fees". But of course, given the complete absence of anything resembling a market with a £3,000 cap, "variable" is a ludicrous word to use.
Disappointingly, only a few VCs have come out publicly and said: "Look here, the £3,000 has been swallowed up almost entirely by the pay deal, we're still in just as much trouble financially as we were before, and if we are going to compete with the big boys in the US we need the freedom to raise more cash from the customers who will benefit hugely from our service."
There is no doubt, however, that most VCs are thinking hard about that cap. Most admit that they have been modelling different outcomes. Where would the cap need to be to create a real market? Perhaps most important, at what level could their institution introduce needs-blind admissions? (At least £8,000 is a common answer to that in the research-intensive universities.)
This is vital stuff. But bearing in mind that many parents and would-be students don't understand the concept of needs-blind admissions (not to mention the misunderstanding about fees not being paid up front), what is the sense of having these discussions behind closed doors? If politicians won't do it, the vice-chancellors need to stick their heads above their laptops and start a public debate. By 2009, it will be too late.
The writer is the director of the higher education think-tank Agora