A sacred cow was quietly slaughtered for Christmas. Buried last week in the very last note of Lord Mandelson's grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England there it was: a cut to the current unit of resource of £190 per student.
Despite a promise to maintain the amount of money allocated to teaching during this Comprehensive Spending Review period and barely three months after David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, reassured vice-chancellors at the Universities UK conference that the Government remained "committed to the unit of resource", the treasured bastion of university finance fell silently and without fanfare, lost in a panoply of cuts.
The signs were there that it was under attack. When the Government this summer tested the water by dangling before universities 10,000 extra student places, mainly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, the most expensive of all, without allocating any teaching cash to them, it was to see if vice-chancellors would bite. Some did. And now it looks as though they've been bitten back. Unsurprisingly, then, it is just these courses "that deliver the higher level skills needed" and "make a special contribution to meeting economic and social priorities" that figure in the grant letter. Institutions that do the Government's bidding will be rewarded using redeployed funds, presumably from other less willing or able institutions.
It is a case of robbing teaching to pay for increased student support (already costly but made more so by the recession) and research, which is protected, with a demand for more concentration and greater social and economic impact. But for all the rhetoric about universities being at the forefront of the nation's recovery by educating the future and about the quality of student experience, the reality is that higher education seems set to take the biggest cut of all in the public sector. Surely when Lord Mandelson demands the continuation of "a high-quality student experience, with excellent teaching", this predetermines the outcome of Lord Browne's Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance due to report in the autumn.
Another victim of the cuts appears to be Tony Blair's target of getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education. Although Lord Mandelson offers in his grant letter many reassuring words about broader and fairer access, now - as Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, University of London, points out - this "once non-negotiable" target is replaced by threats and fines for responding to a demand that, it should be remembered, was fuelled by the Government.
In this very bleak new year, the most worrying aspect of all, however, is the uncertainty. After cut upon cut, is £915 million the final tally, or are there more cuts to come? Finding ways to shrink the higher education budget by nearly £1 billion will be difficult enough without the added anxiety of further reductions hanging over everyone. A Conservative election victory this spring could prompt an emergency budget, adding yet more doubt and threatening even the March 2010 allocations shortly after they are announced.
But for the moment, Lord Mandelson must reassure a jittery sector that there will be no more cuts before the election.