Universities should pay the closest attention to the debate under way within the Higher Education Funding Council for England (“Hefce treads warily amid dated legal framework”, News, 25 April). The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act rightly specifically prevents Hefce from imposing conditions on money it does not provide. To infringe this principle for any reason would be a disastrous first step on a slippery slope potentially leading to political control of universities whatever their sources of funding. The (personal) fees now received from undergraduates, albeit in many cases backed by Treasury loans, are not “provided by Hefce”, indeed are not “public funds”, and therefore any conditions imposed by Hefce on their use would be unlawful.
The government was fully aware of this issue when the decision was taken to change so sharply the balance between (public) grant funding and (private) fees. If the Treasury wishes, as well it might, to limit the overall number of qualified students that institutions choose to admit, then so be it, by whichever legislative route that Parliament, after full scrutiny, might choose to follow. But such an assault on university autonomy cannot properly be launched by Hefce imposing conditions on the use of non-Hefce funds.