Leader: Unite to fight the betrayal

Ministers led students on then abandoned them in rough weather. Universities must stick together to avoid the same fate

June 25, 2009

We're set for a hot summer this year, politically if not meteorologically. An entire generation of students - from those planning to go to university to those graduating - is set to feel betrayed by a Government that promised so much but has delivered so little.

The class of 2009, the first to pay the £3,000 tuition fee, enters a world of rising unemployment. That earnings premium of £120,000 dangled before their eyes to lure them to university seems rather silly now when there is scant hope of graduates having any earnings on which to add a premium.

For the potential class of 2012, things look no better. Universities are paying for the mistakes of mathematically challenged ministers by having swingeing penalties for over-recruitment imposed on them. Unsurprisingly, they are erring on the side of caution and under-recruiting. The trading-up promised for the first time this year for students who perform better than expected in their A levels is expected to be a damp squib, and the number of places available in clearing will be slashed. And who will be most affected? The very group the Government has lured into higher education: widening-participation students. A double betrayal.

The sting of that will lead to the value of a degree being questioned like never before and the purpose of universities being scrutinised closely. We must be ready to meet this head on.

Most of the criticism will be focused on tuition fees and loans as students graduate with an average debt of £15,000. This could not come at a worse time.

Universities are on a fragile financial footing. They have to find alternative revenue streams, both long term and short term. Raising the fees cap should figure in the calculation, hence the fees review later this year, and the National Union of Students has made a sensible and mature contribution to the debate with its proposed graduate levy. But there is a risk that such a sharp focus on fees will overshadow the underlying problem.

Universities are in an unsustainable position. They have been doing much more for much less, and the large public investment they have come to rely on is uncertain. Unfortunately, dialogue with the Government has been made more difficult thanks to universities being placed under the enormous Department for Business, Innovation and Skills led by Lord Mandelson (who knows all about loans). He has made no bones about seeing higher education as an instrument with which to tackle the recession: there is even talk of incentivising universities to provide "economically valuable" courses - a move that would turn them into glorified further education providers.

These are dangerous times. Universities must balance the need for extra cash with protecting the raison d'etre of a university education. This calls for strong representation and a robust defence. This sector is but a small part of Lord Mandelson's portfolio. Is he really going to take the time to have separate talks with the Russell Group, the 1994 Group, Million+ and GuildHE on all major issues?

With so much at stake, the mission groups must put aside their differences for now. The message from higher education must be a clear one conveying common fundamental values. It is time to speak with one voice, or it won't be just the students who feel betrayed.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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