Leader: Market forces already with us

May 27, 2005

The demographic challenges facing some universities and the threat to vulnerable subjects in others  demonstrate that a market of sorts is at work in higher education well in advance of top-up fees. The variations in age profile that make Oxford University a "younger" institution than Anglia or Westminster can be traced back to previous research assessment exercises, as well as to the advantages conferred on academic job-seekers by particular universities. Student awareness of this pecking order - and the impact of post-RAE funding settlements - has played a critical part in the closures in chemistry and other subjects considered to be of "strategic importance".

Bill Rammell, in his first interview as Higher Education Minister, signals his intention to steer well clear of intervention in this market unless he is convinced that the national interest demands it. If pure chemistry disappears in Coventry but courses open in Central Lancashire, so be it. Any minister would do the same at a time of continuing difficulty in selling the hard sciences to sixthformers, especially when more than a quarter of chemistry graduates are either unemployed or in non-graduate jobs and prestigious departments such as those at Bristol and York universities are expanding.

Mr Rammell may find the argument less straightforward, however, in minority subjects such as Chinese or Arabic. Here the market may work in the long term, but universities might not be able to wait. The national interest may require intervention - with more money than Charles Clarke suggested when he commissioned the funding council's review last year. As in the case of student visas, there may be good reasons for flexibility in the rules governing the public finances. It will be in such areas that the new ministerial team will need to show its mettle. If, as seems probable, universities are to take a back seat in the Government's education programme, ministers need to show that they can still deliver if a convincing case can be made.

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