Leader: This time, funds must be found for expansion

June 1, 2001

Labour's 1997 landslide is set to be repeated next week, a justified reward for a government that has made few serious mistakes, has had the economy on its side and has been blessed with a feeble opposition.

In parts of higher education, the high hopes of Tony Blair's 1997 victory have been vindicated. A sharp increase in research funding will allow British science to stay internationally important and perhaps deliver the economic growth that chancellor Gordon Brown and others believe it will.

But Mr Brown's most famous remark about universities during his period as chancellor - his assault on Oxford over its rejection of Laura Spence - suggests reasons why academics might feel cautious about a second Labour term. The government has too little idea of universities as independent institutions whose freedom is politically as well as academically important. It views them instead, quite wrongly, as something not too different from nationalised industries to which instructions can be issued, directly or via intermediaries such as the funding councils.

By contrast, the Conservatives have identified university independence as a key issue and have a scheme - endowing them to forgo state funds - to do something about it. This plan focuses on the right target. The problem is that endowments would cost more than £100 billion, a year's income tax, for the whole sector, even to replicate today's less than adequate funding. At any reasonable speed, the plan would take over a decade. And if it does succeed, the result, despite Tory protestations, will be a sector that is forced to maximise fees but has too little money to fund scholarships for less affluent students. A more divided and less accessible sector would be inevitable.

By contrast, Labour's higher education promise is simple: expansion, expansion, expansion, until half the UK's young people are off to college. This is the right policy for students, and for society and the economy. But in the past, under Tory and Labour governments, expansion has occurred at the expense of staff, whose numbers and rewards have increased far more slowly than student numbers. Now there are signs of more cash becoming available - and higher education minister Baroness Blackstone has admitted that the failure to increase academic pay has been one of the government's mistakes. But this does not solve the mismatch between Labour's enthusiasm for expansion and its unwillingness to pay for it. The cost of going to college threatens not only expansion but the present level of university attendance. And missed recruitment targets mean academic redundancies.

Labour has shown too little recognition of this problem, in contrast to the Liberal Democrats, whose energy in the Scottish Parliament led to the abolition of fees there and whose manifesto promises the same across the UK, along with the restoration of means-tested grants.

On the grounds of their higher education policies, their threats of tax cuts (public money still makes up some 70 per cent of university income) and their distrust of Europe, the Tories rule themselves out as the vote of choice for the academic. The tax cut idea alone shows that all political parties are not the same and that voting is important. The Liberal Democrats and the nationalists are a different and more plausible option. They have the best ideas on student finance but too little to say on expansion and the role of universities in the economy.

Mr Blair has always been clear that the full range of reforms that new Labour wants is a two-parliament project. Higher education's best hope is for a second Labour administration that realises more clearly than the first that properly funded universities and students are essential to its plan for expanding higher education.

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