Alan Ryan

September 26, 2003

Universities UK needs to grow a backbone and stand up to Charles Clarke over higher education funding.

Anyone seriously concerned about the underfunded and run-down state of English higher education should pray that Labour backbenchers defeat the government's plans to raise tuition fees to £3,000 a year. This is not because the backbenchers have much of a case: most are motivated by fear of losing their seats to a middle-class backlash and many of the rest by nostalgia for a world where the top rate of tax on earned income was 83 per cent and on unearned income 98 per cent. As a way of avoiding a middle-class backlash, income-tax levels, like those of 20, 30 or 50 years ago, leave something to be desired, but no matter.

They are not clear either about what they do want as distinct from what they don't - cheap, bad tertiary education for 50 per cent of the age group; good, expensive university education for 20 per cent; or a continuation of the present slow decay? Who knows? Not, of course, that the Association of University Teachers and lecturers' union Natfhe are covering themselves in glory at the moment; to spend your time demanding that all institutions should undertake research while protecting a funding system that makes it impossible is not the brightest behaviour.

Nonetheless, we must pray that the backbenchers prevail. It is the only thing that can persuade vice-chancellors to stand up for the universities they lead and to remember that universities are not publicly owned corporations, that their faculty are not civil servants or government employees and that the government's ability to force them to do what it wishes is very limited. For that matter, the ability of Labour backbenchers to make Charles Clarke do what they want is pretty minimal, too. The secretary of state's control over what universities charge for teaching rests on his right to tell the Higher Education Funding Council for England to reduce its teaching grant to universities that charge more than the permitted tuition fee. If he decided not to issue any such instruction, that, so far as I can see, would be that.

Still, that's Mr Clarke's affair. It is Universities UK's habit of pre-emptive surrender that concerns me. Suppose universities understood the consequences of the fact that they are independent corporations, that they have become heavily dependent on public funding as a matter of historical accident, but that they are, legally speaking, like the old direct-grant secondary schools - private institutions kept afloat by public money paid on behalf of their pupils. It would clear the air if they announced that they were about to charge what they needed, course by course, and go on to say what that was. That would put the ball squarely in the government's court.

If the secretary of state then insisted on telling Hefce to cut university teaching grants, university fees would have to rise further - but it would be clear to everyone whose fault that was. In any event, the rational thing for the secretary of state to do under those conditions would be to give the money to students instead of sending it through Hefce. We would then have a sensible model whereby universities would charge everyone the full cost of the education they delivered, and the government would give whatever support it had in mind to the students themselves. It already buys research via the research councils - it could buy educated students on much the same basis.

The point, to reiterate the obvious, is that we can certainly run a system of tertiary education on the cheap, which is to say on no more than £3,500 a year per student. If we create teaching-only institutions and treat them like extended secondary schools, we can run them at the same cost as secondary schools. They could in time resemble Californian community colleges, which are a thoroughly good thing and not at all to be belittled.

But we can't run more than the equivalent of Californian community colleges on current levels of funding - not much above half the proportion of gross domestic product spent in the US. Staff who are mobile will push off, while the cleverest of the young have already abandoned British academia and won't come back until universities are more prosperous and more fun to work in.

It's time to get out from under the government. For too long it has called the tune without any intention of paying the piper: it has become counterproductively more intrusive and steadily less willing to pay for what it demands. It is perhaps a pity that we have to look to the Luddites of the Labour Party to put some backbone into UUK - unless it is all part of what Hegel would have considered the "cunning of reason". In which case, we may reflect that God moves in mysterious ways and then pray hard for the success of the benighted.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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