Leader: To avoid repeat of history, Plan A needs a backup

November 9, 2001

There is one thing, and probably only one, on which all higher education's representative groups can agree: the government should provide more money. So it should. The questions are how much more, how the government is to be persuaded and what to do if it is not. With a new comprehensive spending review under way, it is lobbying time. And this time, the English funding council is taking an unusually prominent lead, a result no doubt of Sir Howard Newby's transfer from Universities UK to the funding council and his intention to provide leadership for the sector.

The council has been laying in ammunition. First the warning shot: the council let it be known that there would not be enough money to fund all the excellent research about to be revealed by the research assessment exercise at the same level as previous years: estimated cost of honouring this implied commitment - £170 million. Now the council's consultants are about to show that the funding gap in higher education far exceeds the £900 million mark. A figure of £5 billion would be truly terrifying, equivalent to 1.8p on the basic rate of income tax. It cannot be realistic to suppose such sums would come from the government, war or no war.

It is at this point that things fall apart. Delegates at last week's conference on funding at the University of Nottingham may have accepted that a large slug of any extra money will have to come from private pockets if it is to be forthcoming at all, but that view is anathema to those who see the Nottingham group as dangerous free-market extremists.

There is simply no agreement on what should be done if the government is not persuaded. This is a fatal weakness. If it is not honestly confronted, what will happen again is what has happened before: the unit of resource will fall as expansion resumes; the quality of what is offered will decline; and poorer students will be screwed.

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