As clearing ends and the academic year gets under way, the latest enrolments show that universities and colleges are expanding, but too slowly to meet the government's target of 50 per cent participation in higher education by the end of the decade. Another 8,500 students will mean more crowded lecture halls on some campuses and welcome business for the hotel trade where accommodation is stretched. But it will take some particularly imaginative rebranding of courses to make a reality of the prime minister's pledge. Many institutions would desperately like more new recruits, but the demand is not yet there. In a welcome bout of realism, the government's own research brief on staffing refers tellingly to increasing participation "towards" 50 per cent. But politicians know that once they have set a target, their opponents will hold them to it, whether or not it was sensible in the first place. Schools are littered with unrealistic targets, which may have to be acknowledged eventually as general exhortations, rather than resignation issues. For higher education, there is only one target and it cannot be so easily ignored.
Since the 50 per cent goal was so arbitrary as to defy detailed justification, a more confident administration might consider the current rate of progress perfectly satisfactory. But the figure has been declared "non-negotiable" and Margaret Hodge has even suggested this week that it may be too low. November's strategy document will be more concerned with ensuring against failure on this count than with the hybrid free market in higher education that was last week's headline-grabber.
How seriously, then, should we take the minister's threat to allow weak institutions to go to the wall? At a time when Whitehall is so obviously determined to dampen down universities' future funding expectations, it is not unreasonable to ask (as Ms Hodge did in Aberystwyth) why the taxpayer should prop up provision that is shunned both by students and research bodies. But the new year's enrolment figures show some of the supposedly weaker institutions recruiting well, albeit from a smaller pool of applications.
The simplistic market model has traditional universities and the best of the former polytechnics packing in the students, as failing institutions go under. In the real world, however, many of those who currently attend the "weak" universities would be lost to higher education because they cannot or do not want to go elsewhere. It is easy to underestimate the pull of a local institution with experience of catering for a familiar clientele. While mergers may be a practical solution in some circumstances, the political fallout of closing a university would be immense.
Yet some institutional casualties will be difficult to avoid if the government is too gung-ho in November. The signs are that the interests of the research elite will be addressed at the expense of universities that are more likely to serve the needs of the new breed of students required to meet the expansion target. If the government ploughs all its additional investment into research, ministers' rhetoric about universities playing to their strengths will have been just that.
The only alternative, if expansion is not to lead to a lowering of quality that would defeat the purpose of the policy, is to negotiate a decent settlement for teaching. Universities UK may be living in cloud cuckoo land, as Ms Hodge suggests, to expect the government to meet its £9.94 billion bid in full. But the social and economic benefits of extending higher education opportunities more widely cannot be achieved on the cheap.