FOR the past 20 years Andrew Adonis has had an influence on British politics that has far outweighed his public profile. Lord Adonis is the centrist’s centrist – he was perhaps New Labour’s equivalent of Sir Keith Joseph, the intellectual force behind much of the Thatcherite revolution. Although a Cabinet minister, Sir Keith always made for an uncertain public figure and seemed happier out of the limelight, worrying away at knotty policy problems. Lord Adonis is similarly geeky and awkward, and has been highly effective in that tricky space where ideas meet action – a less common skill in politics than you might think.

He was closely involved in the London Challenge scheme that so transformed the capital’s education system, and was the driving force behind the academies programme across England, which with Labour and then Tory support has driven up standards and improved the life prospects of many children from underprivileged backgrounds. The SNP’s current policy of giving more autonomy to headteachers owes much to Lord Adonis, whether they’d admit it or not.

He was also the originator of the High Speed 2 rail line that is planned between London and the north of England. Few were surprised when he accepted David Cameron’s offer to run a new National Infrastructure Commission, which sought to take tribal politics out of long-term projects in vital areas such as energy, transport and technology. He resigned from that role last year over the Government’s approach to Brexit.

In the past few months Lord Adonis has turned his attention to the higher education sector – or back to it. He was responsible in 2004 for the introduction of university tuition fees, which the Blair government set at a maximum of £3,000, but he has now turned against them. He argues that since the Coalition Government raised the limit to £9,250 the system has spiralled out of control and its initial purpose has been undermined: students are racking up enormous debts they stand little chance of ever repaying, often for mediocre courses at mediocre institutions. He has also, with notable success, led a campaign against the inflated pay levels of vice-chancellors, whom he accuses of being financially greedy both for their institutions and themselves.

This, it should be said, is some record. Lord Adonis has achieved more than some Prime Ministers do. He has been intellectually restless, driven by the centrist manta of “what works”, and has had the courage to take on sacred cows that no longer deserve reflexive veneration.

His volte face on tuition fees has inevitably given succour to their opponents, north and south of the Border. After all, if even their original sponsor no longer supports them… but Lord Adonis, although favouring abolition, has also suggested returning fees to their old level. There must be change, he has written, and “the only question is whether they are abolished entirely or whether cross-party support can be built to keep fees to between £1,000 and £3,000, as per their introduction 13 years ago”.

As much as I admire the man, I think he’s plain wrong on the idea of outright abolition, and would instead favour cutting the fees or revising the system to make it more impactful. First, the country’s universities are among our greatest international brands, and only become more important with Brexit. Second, to compete with the best across the world they need cold, hard cash to fund research, salaries and other costs. Third, take a look at Scotland.

I have never been comfortable with the Scottish Government’s refusal to ask students to make a contribution to their education (unless you’re from a non-EU country, or, neatly, England). In an era of increasing demands on the public purse, with an ageing population, an underfunded health service, a transitioning jobs market, and creaking local services, the diversion of public money to fund what is in effect a middle-class subsidy is verging on obscene. Researchers such as the excellent Lucy Hunter Blackburn have shown beyond doubt that Scotland’s system of no fees plus heavily reduced grants means that students from poorer backgrounds are leaving university with giant debts while those from better-off backgrounds emerge relatively unscathed, having lived off the bank of mum and dad. This is not equitable and it is not progressive. It is tokenistic, feel-good rubbish.

The evidence to support that analysis continues to arrive. Statistics released this week by Ucas, the university admissions body, show that applications from Scottish teenagers in deprived areas have fallen for the first time in a decade, even as inequality in application rates has narrowed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The SNP’s solution to this gap is to demand universities reduce the grade requirement for poorer children, which manages the remarkable feat of being defeatist, lazy and patronising all at once.

I suspect that Lord Adonis is right and that there will be changes down south. The Tories need to find ways back into the youth vote and this is one of the more obvious routes. Damian Green, who was in effect deputy PM until his recent resignation, acknowledged as much in a speech when he called for a “national debate” on the issue. But he warned: “If you… want to reduce [fees] then either fewer people go to university or the experience would be less. Because the only other way you can get extra money to go in, if you wanted the same number of people, the same kind of teaching, would be to take it from working people through their taxes.”

The idea behind Tony Blair’s introduction of fees was that students should make a “reasonable contribution” to the cost of their studies. As the overall number of young people attending uni has soared, the burden on the taxpayer has grown ever greater. It is perfectly ethical and, I believe, in fact desirable for a reasonable charge to be levied on the user of the service, who is likely to enjoy a higher lifetime income as a result. Whether that is through a tuition fee or a graduate tax is a moot point.

The Scottish Government recently guaranteed that EU students who start here in the 2019/20 academic year, post-Brexit, will receive free tuition. After that, presumably, their successors will be asked to pay. I’m fine with that, as long as our homegrown scholars do the same.