Leader: Caught in Catch-22 of widening participation

September 14, 2001

Beyond the lurid glare of this week's events, quiet discussion has been going on about the future of universities: who should enrol; how should they be regulated; and how should students be supported? Universities UK this week dropped its previous equivocation and joined the campaign, conducted by The THES since before the election, for better student maintenance. But university leaders have a problem: if higher education funding is a closed pot, extra for maintenance will mean less for staff and facilities. UUK must therefore use its lobbying power to persuade the government that the size of the pot must be increased. This will mean either moving higher education up a political agenda dominated by hospitals and schools or persuading the prime minister that it is worth the political risk of increasing fees for richer students.

Similar issues of how to pay for wider participation without deterring poorer students or damaging quality dominated a meeting of the Anglo Israel Colloquium in Oxford last weekend. Israel is poised to decide whether to open the doors of its universities to all who matriculate from high school. It is also committed to reducing tuition fees to half their present level. Among the reasons for this policy are a wish to open up better opportunities to Israel's Muslim minority ( THES , September 7) and a dislike of foreign competitors.

In the 1990s, a number of overseas institutions, many of them British, set up franchising agreements in Israel, admitting students who could not get into Israel's own universities. To control this market, Israel tightened licensing requirements and scandal resulted when some overseas providers failed to match up. The so-called "open gate" policy would put an end to this private market. But resistance is strong. Israel's research universities fear being flooded by students without the resources to match - a fate suffered by Germany's distinguished research universities. Lower-level colleges fear being left empty as students trade up. Now this week's events may tip the balance: just one more way Israel's Muslim community will suffer.

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