So they came up with a cunning wheeze: a quango to force universities to set varying fees (thus subverting their free market claims, by the way). But now it turns out that they don't have the legal authority to do that. Back to the drawing board.
The government mistakenly believed that the Office for Fair Access had legal powers to "impose" different tuition fee levels on universities and is now struggling to deal with the financial consequences of its error, it has emerged.
In a candid assessment of the fraught policy position, Sir Martin Harris, the director of fair access, said that although he was unclear about how the government had come to such a view, he was sure that a solution would be found because "in the end, the Treasury always wins".
They're going to blackmail institutions into variable fees, by cutting research funding or student numbers.
Not only is this unethical, it's unworkable. Research money is being cut massively anyway (who needs cutting-edge knowledge in a recession?), so many institutions won't be getting much or any. Certainly we won't. The other tool is to cap home student numbers. This won't work either: an institution can fill up on high-paying overseas students. Selfish, yes, but economically sound.
One of the threats is that universities which don't let in enough economically-deprived students won't be able to charge £9000. It's a stupid idea: The Hegemon is in the top 3 or 4 institutions for these students - but they won't be letting us charge £9000. Meanwhile the Oxfords and Cambridges will fix their entry requirements so that the same proportion (close to zero) of poor kids get in while making it look like they're doing enough. There's absolutely no chance of such institutions being made to charge less than the maximum. In any case, they're so rich that they can easily cover the gap with donations and investment income. Places like mine don't have rich benefactors, nor do we own large swathes of the country.
The problem for the government is that it's fronting up the tuition fees: they pay the universities and students (theoretically) pay it back over their entire working lives. If every course at every institution charges £9000, the state's coffers are rapidly drained, especially if repayment rates are low. It's a disaster not just educationally and politically, but on their own terms. They wanted a free market and independently sustainable education sector, and they're imposing a rigged, state-dependent and loss-making system. Students lose out, universities lose out and the taxpayer loses out. Trebles all round!