Most academics - like the vast majority of students and their parents - would prefer higher education to be free, funded from general taxation. They would like the government's strategy paper to promise as many billions as it takes to restore reasonable funding levels to universities, with some leeway for expansion. So would The THES and, very probably, education secretary Charles Clarke, who has admitted to concerns over the impact of increased fees on access to higher education.
By this time next week, however, irrevocable progress will have been made towards a system in which graduates or their parents bear a larger share of the costs of higher education. British universities will be differentiated by cost, not merely by reputation. We are already too far down the fees route and too far into funding decline for there to be any realistic prospect of full state support for a higher education system worthy of the name. For many in higher education, opposition to fees is a matter of principle: education is a human right that should not be limited by the ability to pay. But there are conflicting principles at work in this debate. Higher education minister Margaret Hodge may have used an unfortunate analogy when she questioned whether the dustman should subsidise the doctor's path to affluence - street-cleaners and stockbrokers might have been a better choice. But even if the supposed £400,000 lifetime earnings premium enjoyed by graduates is exaggerated, there is no doubt that a degree costs more to deliver and is worth more to the recipient than £1,100 a year. Nor that some degrees are worth more than others.
In principle, too, Lord Dearing was and is right that all graduates have an equal opportunity to benefit from their course so should repay the same amounts. The reintroduction of maintenance grants would remove the immediate disincentive to study for those from poor homes, and low earners would not be required to repay fees. But widening participation is a matter more of perception than principle. Successive studies have shown that aversion to debt is strongest in the low socioeconomic groups that are underrepresented in higher education. Without fee concessions, the top universities will become even more exclusive and a degree will remain beyond the aspirations of millions of young people.
None of the options before ministers is genuinely attractive, given the way in which higher education has been squeezed financially over a protracted period. It would be doing future generations of students no favours to allow universities - not just the top ones - to drift into mediocrity. With an expensive war looming and the chancellor's commitments already looking questionable, next week's belated spending settlement for 2003-06 could well represent the high-water mark of public funding of higher education. At least higher fees, in the form of an Australian-style contributions scheme, would offer universities some element of security for the future. A graduate tax would leave students open to paying far more, with no certainty that the money would continue to find its way into higher education.
Yet neither can a Labour government justify a system that puts the most desirable universities beyond the reach of middle-income households, even if it allows a modest increase in participation from poor families. The price of shifting more of the burden of support for public universities to the consumer must be much more effective government assistance for students and strict regulation of a new fees regime. Universities that charge high fees should demonstrate that they are ensuring fair access and improving teaching as a result. Next week should mark the start of negotiations on how such a system could work, rather than a continuation of the Utopian debate on free tuition.