Leader: Heading for a future that looks a muddy Brown

January 5, 2007

After the tumultuous events of the past 12 months - the academic pay dispute, the introduction of top-up fees and the beginning of the end of the research assessment exercise, to name but three - 2007 might be expected to be a year of consolidation for UK universities. But in reality this year may have a more lasting impact on the future of higher education.

By the end of 2007, the impact of changes in fees and research will be clearer, and a new Prime Minister will have the opportunity to set a fresh direction for universities.

Assuming that the Prime Minister is Gordon Brown, there may be further turbulence ahead. As Chancellor, Mr Brown has let it be known that education will be protected from the full force of this summer's spending review, but (like Tony Blair) he tends to use education as shorthand for schools and nurseries, rather than universities. His limited interventions in higher education are hardly encouraging: ill-informed criticism of Oxford University over the rejection of Laura Spence; the hasty implementation of the Cambridge-MIT Institute; potentially destructive manoeuvring over top-up fees; and a muddled attempt to revamp research funding. But recent statements at least acknowledge the economic and social importance of a well-resourced sector.

Mr Brown has been critical of university management and governance - in particular at elite institutions. But his immediate concerns might be to take forward the Leitch agenda on skills, with more of an accent on further than higher education, while steering additional support towards applied research and encouraging still greater selectivity for blue-skies projects.

He would be unlikely to depart from Labour's twin goals of maintaining global competitiveness and widening participation, but there have been few clues to his intentions on detailed questions such as fees policy.

By the time Mr Blair leaves office, the initial impact of top-up fees will be better understood. We know that the number of applications declined (but to a level that still exceeded the total in 2004), that more students chose to stay at or near home and that some subjects suffered from the widely predicted drift to more vocational courses. An early analysis of acceptances suggests little change in the social mix, with the plethora of bursary and scholarship schemes seeming to have minimal impact on student choice. But the first year of a new regime is notoriously unreliable as an indicator of long-term behaviour. As anxiety over the system subsides and student-support arrangements become more familiar, a different pattern may emerge. That should bring relief for well-regarded universities where the number of applications slumped in 2006. But, with demographic downturn in the 18 to 20 age group approaching at the end of the decade, some subjects and institutions may look less secure in 12 months' time. Funding council forecasts are gloomy and an overreliance on overseas students has been well-documented.

Civil servants and Downing Street strategists are preparing for the 2009 review of top-up fees, but their deliberations will extend to the type of university system that the taxpayer can be expected to support. Mass higher education is no longer in question, particularly in the light of future employment forecasts, but the balance of public and private contributions is up for grabs in teaching and research, as is the division between campus, workplace and distance-learning.

By the end of 2007, the die will be cast for the final research assessment exercise, and its successor will have been settled at last. Both Labour and the Tories are likely to have reined in the ambitions of those who pin their hopes on the removal of England's threshold on top-up fees, while continuing the rhetoric of the market. It will be a year in which the future becomes clearer - but not necessarily more enticing.

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