Government grant letters are not designed to be models of peerless prose bursting with vision and optimism. But this week's missive to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (which was so late it actually missed the already departed chief executive) is a particularly depressing example of the genre. There is no sense anywhere in the 15 paragraphs of ministers' concern for the continuing excellence of the higher education system, or for any remotely academic issue. Virtually the entire content is about links with business, widening participation and equal-opportunity regulations.
While all three are important themes, the fact that they (together with a further reduction in bureaucracy) dominate the Secretary of State's priorities for Hefce is a gift for a revitalised Opposition. The Government says little enough about higher education at the moment without wasting the few opportunities that it allows itself to set an agenda. At a seminar this week at Keele on the role of the modern university, academics were depressed by the utilitarianism that they perceived to be pressing in on them. While the grant letter is a necessarily technical document, it could hardly have produced a better piece of evidence. The clear assumption behind the requirement for increased spending on widening participation, for example, is that the extra money should come from other teaching or research budgets. There is no consideration of balancing priorities, or any apparent question of an enhanced budget for the funding council to ensure that other important activities are protected.
There were welcome aspects to Ruth Kelly's letter: provisional figures were at least confirmed and an acknowledgement included of the all-important maintenance of funding levels per student. There may be debate on whether this is turns out to be the reality, but it is a key principle on which to enter negotiations for the next spending round. It is just a pity that a Government that has improved the financial position of colleges and universities (at great risk to its survival) should demonstrate such narrow ambitions for the sector.