Leader: Your Scrooge is someone else's Santa Claus

December 21, 2001

'Tis the season to be jolly. And higher education has good cause to celebrate. The year 2001 ends with a ringing endorsement of university research; an appropriate quality assurance regime seems to be in sight; the message that debt deters poor students has got through to ministers; and the performance indicators at least show no deterioration.

So that's all right? Not really. Decisions taken by the English funding council mean that, for English institutions at least, there is to be equal misery in the wake of the research assessment exercise, with only 5* departments fully funded and even their gains capped. None is to be allowed to succeed too well so that none shall suffer too much. While probably the fairest available solution, and one that will blunt anger, this decision could make it all too easy for the government to resist fully funding the research results. Meanwhile, ministers are increasing pressure for better performance on widening participation and retention without discussing the costs. The National Audit Office could yet find the same sort of manipulation of performance figures in higher education as it has this week unveiled in the National Health Service.

But Christmas is not the time for gloom, rage or despondency. Spare a thought instead for colleagues in the universities of the former Soviet bloc as they struggle to bring their universities back to international standards on budgets (and salaries) that make Gordon Brown look more like Santa Claus than Scrooge. And wonder at the motivation of large numbers of Polish students who spend 10 to 15 per cent of average income working for a degree in night school.

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