A rocky path for 'roll-over option'

February 23, 1996

Don't," said a particularly perceptive member of our university senate during a sombre debate on funding last week, "don't let us be trapped into thinking that there is no alternative to locally charged fees, with all the problems which they would bring." This led me to try to set down what these alternatives are.

I can think of three. The first is the restoration to institutions and to students of the generous funding arrangements of two decades ago, when far fewer students entered our universities than now, and when those who were admitted were supported by the generality of taxpayers (including those significantly less well off than the students themselves or their families).

It was through this beneficent regime that so many of those now senior in universities - including myself - gained their opportunities, which in turn is why there is still such strong emotional commitment to it. I am, however, aware of no political party which is likely to propose anything remotely approaching the expenditure that would be needed to bring this about.

The second is the implementation of an income-contingent loan repayment scheme for students and - and this is crucial - the simultaneous hypothecation for higher education, and in particular for teaching, of the expenditure saved in this way.

This is a feasible possibility, for which there is now, covertly, widespread cross-party support - but not, it seems, the political will to announce that it is to happen.

Neither of the two main parties wishes to be labelled as the party which "ended the student grant", even though the present grant plus loan arrangement is patently unfair to poorer students, limits access, and is creating very real hardship for a minority. So there is a possible solution here - but one that can only be implemented by a government, not by universities themselves, and not in any event, for reasons relating to the timing of the election and of a subsequent legislative programme, for at least four years.

I can think of a third alternative. This is to accept this year's 7 per cent reduction in resource per student, albeit under protest, simply as the next in a line of reductions, which will just accelerate the decline in the quality of the higher education experience for students, and further undermine our capacity to undertake world-class research.

One of my senior colleagues described this as the "roll-over option". Pressing for the first option without an alternative strategy in the event of failure is to my mind tantamount to the third.

What is certainly not an option is to carry on with present and projected levels of public funding while at the same time maintaining the quality of our teaching, of our research, and of our laboratory and library facilities, which are central to our endeavour.

The complete misunderstanding by the Department for Education and Employment about what universities' so-called "capital" is used for will inevitably provoke a crisis in this respect. And once again funds are not available to finance the kind of pay rise which other public sector workers are to enjoy.

If fees are not to be the way forward, then now is the time to lobby the politicians.

Recent events have put higher education on the political agenda: it is the responsibility of all of us to keep it there.

Martin Harris is vice chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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