Leader: Short-term relief, long-term grief

UUK's readiness to toe the government line ignores the troubling questions at the heart of the coalition's proposals

December 2, 2010

It's a strange old world. The custodians of the nation's intellectual repositories are working furiously to decide what tuition fee to charge in time to meet their prospectus deadlines, while the unassuming quango chief who holds the university purse strings makes a principled and impassioned defence of the arts and the humanities in the academy.

Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (who has a science and health background and is a former vice-chancellor himself), has pronounced that he is uncomfortable living in a country that does not put public cash into the arts and humanities and has expressed his "huge" sympathy for the argument that they should receive funding.

Universities UK argues, however, that institutions are caught between a rock and a hard place - raise fees or cut student numbers - and it believes the best option is to back government plans because, well, there is no other option. Its leader, Steve Smith, insists that vice-chancellors obviously dislike the huge cut in teaching funding and have argued against it repeatedly.

But for Sir Alan, the argument is far from over. At issue, he says, is not only the "inherent value" of arts and humanities subjects but also "the importance of having universities with a broad range of disciplines". The question of state funding in higher education must be revisited, he said, "if we want to invest in our higher education system across the broad range of disciplines...we can't simply do that by racking up fees".

The government and the vice-chancellors want a speedy resolution, but there are fundamental issues at stake that should not get lost in the rush to market. Short-term relief could well lead to long-term grief. (The science lobby was successful in arguing the economic case for science, technology, engineering and mathematics as priority subjects - at the expense, it seems, of other subjects. Removing the teaching grant for the arts, humanities and social sciences sends out the message that they have no social benefit.) Nick Barr, the architect of top-up fees, fears that one of two things will happen: fees in those subjects will shoot up to make up for lost public support and applicant numbers will fall away as a result, or fees will remain low in the absence of subsidy and quality will decline.

Is that what we as a society want: the destruction of the humanities or their retention only as the preserve of the wealthy? This isn't just about funding universities. This is about changing the landscape of higher education. And the key question here is: are we happy that higher education will in effect no longer be a public good but a private investment?

In the summer, Hefce asked Ipsos MORI to canvass views on the social benefits of higher education and state support for it. Ninety per cent of those surveyed thought it was important for the government to invest in higher education; 59 per cent deemed it very important.

Have all those people changed their minds? Do they know what is at stake? A vote on the fee cap will take place before Christmas, before all the coalition's policy details have been made clear. There is so much more riding on this than fees alone. John Denham, the shadow business secretary, calls the proposal "a big gamble with one of the best university systems in the world". If fortune favours the brave, the leadership of UK higher education is surely in trouble.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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