Please fund us properly, minister 2

December 19, 2003

Rich kids do law, poor kids do physics - is that what prime minister Tony Blair, an ex-lawyer, really wants? That is the outcome of combining Alan Johnson's belief that law courses will subsidise physics courses and Russell Group chairman Michael Sterling's belief in replacing fee-waivers with maintenance grants ("Grants may be key to success", THES , December 5).

Faced with a choice between high fees for law and low fees for physics, the same maintenance grant for each and no extra dosh from parents, what would any sensible 15-year-old do when choosing their A-level subjects? Add in the pay dispute and relatively fixed departmental budgets, and mix it with university finance directors focused on generating an income surplus, what is the result? The cake gets sliced differently but is no bigger; science courses get merged or axed; and academics get shuffled from one institution to another ("King's to cut life sciences", THES , December 5).

With fixed departmental budgets and no exact match between old and new pay spines, there will be departmental winners and losers. Who has more clout - research-active academics or admin and technical staff? Teaching-only universities, unable to afford the infrastructure investment in science and engineering teaching or the academics necessary for professionally accredited courses such as law and accountancy, opt instead for strange mixtures of enhanced further education training. It's a recipe for segregational disaster.

Solution? Tax the rich. If variable fees are non-negotiable, then add fee-waivers to maintenance grants and re-think the spaghetti of managerialist semi-regulation.

Richard Hull
Business School
University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

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