Leader: Freedom, on the right terms, may be the best hope

November 30, 2001

Education has vanished from the top of the government's agenda. It barely rated in the chancellor's pre-budget report. The contrast with earlier this year, when higher education made it into party manifestoes, is worrying. Expectations have been raised among staff and students but the cost of meeting those expectations - identified by Universities UK and the Association of University Teachers in their evidence to the comprehensive spending review - is far above anything that can be expected from the Treasury, even if taxes rise. The only way out now may be to give universities greater freedom - on clearly specified terms - to solve their own problems.

What has changed is not just recession - that was expected. September 11 changed the political situation. The government is now prepared to tax to finance big spending on health but not universities. The higher education minister was adamant this week that there would be no extra money to reward improvements in research before the new spending settlement. She had already said there would be no additional money for students. All hopes are now pinned on the outcome of that review - Jbut even if higher education gets extra money, it will not be enough and cannot come on stream before 2003.

Meanwhile, potential students may opt en masse for a gap year next year in the hope of a better deal in 2003, threatening funding as numbers fall short. Top research institutions have mortgaged their future, confident of getting extra cash from the research assessment exercise, but the Higher Education Funding Council for England cannot "fully fund the outcome" as the chief executive told last week's annual meeting. The council can meet only about a third of the extra cost from money it already has.

The crunch comes just when universities are beginning seriously to address the class divide in higher education by helping schools and further education colleges pull through more young people from 16 onwards. At last, in the form of the Excellence Challenge and Hefce's postcode premium, universities have a funding stream to follow. And, as they have proved with the research assessment exercise, they are good at following funding streams.

Two years ago, The THES visited a number of universities looking at their widening participation initiatives. The initiatives tended to be ad hoc , often inspiring, but rarely university-wide, let alone sector-wide. Now Oxford, for example, has a coordinator for all its Excellence Challenge work. And those keen on widening participation in Oxford Brookes University have a funding carrot and a poor benchmark performance stick to persuade their colleagues. Coordinators working with universities in the Excellence in Cities areas argue that the challenge has focused university minds in a way that was long overdue. This is the kind of work for which the funding council hopes to develop more generous funding incentives. Now its scope looks severely limited.

But paradoxically, it may be that the push to widen participation opens a new political avenue for a government willing to think creatively. It could allow universities to charge higher fees but impose clear widening-participation requirements and fines for failure. It could insist that poor students form a healthy percentage at all the strong research universities and make sure the middle classes can finance the cost. The outcome to avoid is that only the poor and the wealthy go to Oxbridge. This way the research elite could flourish, but not at the expense of poor students or fellow universities. We need to find a way in which everyone can win, and this may be the only possibility. At the moment everyone is losing.

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