Leader: Funding fanfare is not music to everyone's ears

March 7, 2003

It would be dangerous to read too much into today's funding allocations for English higher education: the late publication of the government's plans inevitably meant that some policy changes had to be fudged. The identification of 6* research departments, for example, will be revisited next year, as, one hopes, will the selection of "emerging" departments.

Ministers surely did not mean that whole subjects should be given special treatment while the rest suffer, no matter how promising departments might be.

But the allocation gives an indication of the differentiated shape of things to come for universities and colleges. Oxford and Cambridge will still be paupers compared with Harvard and Yale, but both will be more than £10 million a year better off, even before top-up fees are introduced.

Some of those with a record of widening participation and scope to expand will also benefit. Leeds Metropolitan University, for example, will enjoy an 11 per cent increase and some colleges do better still. The government's proclamation of the "best ever" settlement for higher education rings hollow, however, in Hull or at South Bank University, where next year's increase will not even match inflation.

As usual, the real danger signs are to be found among the institutions receiving special help to avoid unmanageable budget cuts. In general, these are the universities and specialist institutions that could slip through the net in a system designed to offer something for everyone. They are not full of 6* researchers or specialists in teaching disadvantaged students, but they are all-rounders fulfilling an important role. Is Loughborough University, for example, to be penalised for persevering with engineering at a time when student recruitment is difficult but the national need is plain to see?

For now, a safety net is in place for such institutions, but they will be vulnerable in the long term if financial viability depends on every university fitting a predetermined niche. Encouraging universities to play to their strengths makes sense, but to insist that they all narrow their focus puts at risk some of the glories of British higher education.

Ministers have had to acknowledge that state schools do not all fall neatly into the specialist categories they have drawn up. Sooner or later, they will reach the same conclusion about universities.

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