Best not to kill bill

January 16, 2004

Labour's plan may not be perfect but it is the sector's best hope in years, says Robert Stevens

We all know that over the past 20 years the average payment per student in English universities has dropped by half, the number of students has more than doubled and the real salaries of academics have fallen dramatically.

There are fewer lecturers per student, fewer tutorials and fewer seminars.

Has the higher education bill remedied this?

In crass terms, clearly not - at least from a financial point of view. The universities claim they are £11 billion short in deferred investment; Charles Clarke, the education secretary, claims only £8 billion.

Deficits in the account are estimated at £3 billion to £5 billion. Yet since the new legislation will provide - so far as we can judge - only a little over £1.6 billion to solve this latter gap, there is a long way to go.

But what of the principle? The bill, in its own way, is remarkable. It is increasingly clear that the Treasury will no longer fund universities at any reasonable level, and the obvious funders of higher education are the students. What has been so remarkable is that Tony Blair and Clarke, whatever their failings, have produced the first scheme for many years to give priority to the university's interests rather than to those of students and their parents.

At the same time, the concessions on maintenance grants and fee remission represent an important realisation that it is maintenance rather than fees that prevents the poor attending universities. These concessions appear to have been enough to persuade most new university vice-chancellors that the bill is a step in the right direction. The Russell Group will settle for increased freedom and continued inadequate funding. It will mean, however, that Oxford will lose £700 per undergraduate; Imperial College, London claims it will lose as much as £5,000 per student per year.

And it is that kind of talk that agitates Labour's left, with its fear of a two-tier system and "elitism". The implication of the rebels' position is that Imperial must not only be prevented from charging more than Thames Valley University but, over time, it must be stopped from spending more than Thames Valley. In short, to prevent elitism, Imperial needs to reduce the quality of its education.

It is here that Clarke's bill gets caught up in the politics of the Labour Party. Gordon Brown, the chancellor, originally described the Blair-Clarke proposals as "madness". Now his acolytes are busy trying to destabilise the bill (and the prime minister). Yet Brown is also pushing an almost embarrassingly elitist programme in research (more than half of research funds go to just five institutions, including Imperial). If these have to continue to dumb down their undergraduate programmes, their quality will fall and it will become difficult to maintain world-class research programmes. Even with dramatically increased funding, research will continue to migrate to the US, together with the best academics.

And what of the workers at the coalface? The Association of University Teachers says 80 per cent oppose top-up fees. At the older universities, academics still pine for the balmy days of the University Grants Committee, while at the newer universities, staff remember the pre-1988 days when they were in effect employees of local authorities and there was a feeling of solidarity with other underpaid workers. Few academics understand university funding, although that does not prevent them pontificating about it, just as they do when signing petitions about public and international issues about which they comprehend little. No doubt Labour rebels, Tory cynics and Liberal Democrat ideologues will rely on their opposition.

The bill may well fail. If that happens, Clarke says he will stay. The prime minister may not have that luxury. But an opportunity to bring greater freedom and some - although inadequate - money into the sector will have been lost.

Robert Stevens is an honorary fellow of Keble and Pembroke colleges, Oxford. His new book, University to Uni , is published this month by Politico's, £15.99.

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