Leader: Institutions risk zero-sum game if they snub Hodge

October 5, 2001

The mood music from Brighton this week has been all sombre pomp and circumstance. The prime minister and the chancellor are readying the country for war - for soldiers' deaths and higher taxes. As with any war conducted by a democratic society, solidarity, community and togetherness become essential themes to mobilise the necessary degree of consent. This week's rhetoric deliberately echoed the stirring wartime texts of Tawney and Beveridge - freedom from the scourges of want, disease, idleness, ignorance and squalor rather than freedom to pursue individual ends at others' expense. Collective action is in, fat cats are out.

Among those disenchanted groups to be swept into the circle of concern are students, who with their families represent a substantial tranche of voters. Both prime minister and chancellor acknowledged that something must be done to staunch the disaffection arising from student debts and to encourage more disadvantaged people to enrol.

Messages from the education department are more cautious. Not surprising: university leaders have presented higher education minister Margaret Hodge with a long shopping list of wants, all with substantial price tags. The needs of students are only one item. They are also concerned with the needs of staff and the costs of updating facilities. In response, the minister has set a list of challenges that echoes the 13 points laid down by Shirley Williams in the late 1960s when she was minister for higher education. They boil down to a demand that higher education become more willing to embrace change and more useful to the society that supports it. Much political ill will flowed from higher education's flagrant disregard of the then Mrs Williams. Much could flow from resistance now.

The minister has warned that there will not be the money to do everything. The danger for higher education is that of a zero-sum game. Unless institutions are seen to have signed up to the government's agenda - accountability, high-quality teaching, mergers, local involvement, wider participation, gender equality - the politicians will take the easy option: they will take steps to sort out student support but it could be at the expense of higher education staff and educational provision.

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