Leader: A year of living dangerously

January 2, 2004

No forward look to a new year concludes that it will be boring or insignificant, but 2004 will surely be remembered as a milestone for higher education. Like top-up fees or loathe them, the decisions taken at Westminster over the next few months will determine the future direction and character of British universities. Devolution notwithstanding, the impact will be felt far beyond England.

Without a viable alternative, the rejection of fees would condemn higher education to debilitating decline for the foreseeable future. Ministers have made it clear that the funding gap in universities is not going to be filled by the taxpayer, and it could be several years before another reform comes around. But even if the government has its way, concessions to its backbenchers could leave universities and colleges little better off. The new year brings the possibility of a fresh start, but it will be a dangerous time.

One casualty - whatever the fate of this month's bill - could be Tony Blair's ambition for half of all young people to experience higher education by the age of 30. Without an unexpectedly generous settlement in this year's comprehensive spending review, the policy will be all but dead before the new fees regime arrives (assuming that it does). At a time of substantial growth in the number of 18-year-olds, universities will struggle to maintain current participation rates, let alone increase them.

Opinion polls suggest that the public accepts the case for graduate contributions of some sort, but there is much less backing for the 50 per cent target. In a recent poll, only one voter in nine regarded expansion on this scale as "highly desirable" and even Labour supporters saw it as a low priority. The Tories can be expected to make the most of this as they engineer a retreat from the embarrassment of their own higher education policy.

Ministers have already switched to talking about moving "towards" 50 per cent. But however unwise it was to set an arbitrary target, any downgrading will be seen as a tacit admission that growth has gone far enough. The government must show, in the spending review as well as the bill, that it remains committed to mass higher education. In this crunch year, it is one argument that has to be won.

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