Leader: Brown could put HE in the pink

June 29, 2007

So what is higher education to make of Prime Minister Gordon Brown?

The first and most positive thing to say is that over the past decade Mr Brown has proved himself, on many occasions, to be a generous friend.

Between 1996-97 and 2005-06, total higher education income rose from £11 billion to almost £20 billion, an 80 per cent increase. Research and contract income doubled from £1.6 billion to £3.1 billion while funding council grants rose from £4.4 billion to £7.5 billion, a 70 per cent increase. In 2004, Mr Brown announced the ten-year review of science that would include annual increases in the science budget of 5.75 per cent from 2005-06.

There is no reason to think that Mr Brown's financial commitment to higher education will weaken. But, like some ferociously ambitious parent, he has always and will continue to expect a lot in return for his investment.

This "tough love" approach may work well at a macro level. But in more subtle and complex areas of higher education, such as admissions, Mr Brown has proved he can be a blunter instrument.

Mr Brown misjudged it when he called Oxford University's rejection of Laura Spence an "absolute scandal". Ms Spence went to a state school but she was middle-class. Right cause, wrong cause célèbre .

Widening participation is a complex issue and one to which Mr Brown is personally committed. It remains to be seen, however, whether the sometimes clunking fist of the former "Iron" Chancellor opts for centrally orchestrated social engineering or whether he cuts universities some slack and allows them to get on with the job.

Either way, come the review of top-up fee levels in 2009, Mr Brown, as an architect of the current fee regime, ought to argue for higher charges, since he knows that the real deterrent to university is a lack of opportunity, not a lack of money.

These are early days but, on balance, Mr Brown's premiership looks to be good news for higher education. He was, after all, the man who put the money where Tony Blair's mouth was.

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