Leader: 2006 new year evolution: shape up for change

January 6, 2006

This promises to be a crunch year for UK higher education - or perhaps the first of a series of crunches. Filling places in the new era of top-up fees will head the worry list for many universities and colleges. For others it will be just as important to make the adjustment to the full economic costing of research and to maximise the chances of success in the research assessment exercise of 2008.

So far, top-up fees have not produced the upheaval predicted by critics of the Government's plans. There were no fireworks at the Office for Fair Admissions, virtually no market in fee levels and very little in bursaries.

Applications in the first year of the new system are down, but they are still running ahead of the equivalent figures for 2004 and previous years.

Only in the summer will we know whether the transition has been really such plain sailing. Will the ratio of applications to acceptances hold up everywhere? There is little margin for error at some institutions. Will the social mix change in a way that embarrasses ministers? And, above all, what will happen in clearing? That is when the market will operate if it is ever going to. Institutions are being discouraged from offering more generous packages at that point, but they may have little choice if the alternative is underrecruitment.

The danger is that higher education will begin to resemble the travel market. American students are becoming accustomed to discovering that classmates are paying a range of different fees for the same course, and no doubt their British counterparts would soon do the same. But admissions officers would not want to encourage a switch to the last-minute bargain-hunting that has transformed tourism. Competition for places will protect the most popular universities, but for others it could lead to post-qualification admissions (PQA) by the back door.

The official version of PQA should finally be settled this spring, but the real thing seems as far away as ever. Schoolteachers may want it, but most vice-chancellors do not. The Government may press for some reform, if only to show that higher education has not completely disappeared from its agenda, but the hotchpotch that is set to emerge will surely not be the last word on the subject.

At least the appointment of Boris Johnson as Conservative Higher Education Spokesman should raise the political profile of the sector - journalists scent good copy when he is involved. The Tories have serious thinking to do in this area, and no one should be fooled into thinking that Mr Johnson is incapable of doing it. The question, rather, is whether his hitherto elitist instincts can be adapted to the more inclusive Cameron version of Conservatism.

As far as academics are concerned, that is all a long way off. They will be more concerned about the prospect of a seemingly inevitable pay dispute and the effects of further "modernisation". This will be a key year for establishing whether there is any realistic prospect of significant improvements in salary levels, both for academics and other campus staff.

If the unions are to be successful, it will surely be through increased local bargaining.

Elsewhere, 2006 will see a new chief executive at the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It may be too late for him (or just possibly her) to make substantial changes to the next RAE, but research universities are already lobbying for a lighter touch in future. There will also have to be debate about the long-term role of the council itself and that of the other central agencies.

Universities may be facing evolution, rather than the revolution many predicted would be the result of top-up fees, but the shape of the higher education system should be much clearer this time next year.

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