Leader: Count the collateral damage

We must not let the high-stakes political game being played by ministers and v-cs overshadow the human toll change can exact

February 17, 2011

What a mess. The catastrophe that is UK higher education grows worse by the day. It is now clear that the coalition government has got its calculations wrong. But it is not going to let that tiny detail stand in the way of a funding policy that - with its slashing of university teaching support and withdrawal of education maintenance allowances - has been described as an act of "economic illiteracy and cultural vandalism" by Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics and an architect of tuition fees.

The Treasury modelled its funding on average tuition fees across the sector of £7,500 a year. Any university that wishes to charge more than £6,000 must negotiate annual agreements with the Office for Fair Access. If these benchmarks are not met, Offa can revoke the agreement and impose a fine of £500,000.

Having done their own sums, however, many universities have concluded that they will have to set fees well above £6,000 just to break even. Politically, the government cannot let that happen, so ministers are now pulling out all the stops. A desperate government now seems to be throwing everything but the kitchen sink at universities. Last week, in an apparent challenge to autonomy, it threatened to change legislation to prevent universities' charges clustering around the upper limit. Then vice-chancellors were apparently told that if they did try to charge £9,000, the Treasury would have to claw back money through the science budget at research-led institutions and through student numbers at teaching-led institutions.

And if that weren't enough for universities to contend with, Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, makes it clear in our cover story that pressure will be applied from below as well as from above by consumer students paying more than ever.

What's the betting that that cosy little deal negotiated between ministers and the leadership of Universities UK to limit the cuts and transfer funding from the state to the student doesn't feel that clever and comforting now?

It certainly places individual vice-chancellors in an unfortunate position. How do they make ends meet and fulfil widening participation duties? And how does the government square its access agenda with targeting post-1992 universities, which are in the vanguard of participation efforts, by stressing that institutions should be judged on retention rates?

New universities will be worst hit by this farrago; and amid the politicking, the institutional calculations and the pricing of courses it may be easy to forget the human costs: lecturers who will lose their jobs and students who will be denied places and opportunities.

This week, our letters pages feature the moving story of one vice-chancellor who became emotional while apprising staff of the difficult situation facing such universities. "Government policy will destroy the outstanding work of many vice-chancellors like ours," the letter writer says. "If there is any moral fibre in the sector, then there will be widespread opposition to what is being proposed. Everyone in the sector, whether in a Russell Group university or a Million+ institution, must know that what we are witnessing is wrong...Are we going to stand by passively and allow this genocide of academe?"

With the White Paper around the corner, that must be the question on everyone's lips.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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