Blair should restate his mission for universities

February 8, 2002

Nobody knows what Tony Blair meant when he made his now-famous commitment to 50 per cent participation in higher education. There is also doubt about where the percentage stood when he said it, and where it has got to now. But even his worst enemies would not imagine that he intended the expansion to be accomplished by a gentle increase in middle-class college-going, or by creative accounting reminiscent of the less savoury National Health Service trusts.

Perhaps the time is right for the prime minister to restate what the government wants from the country's universities. If he does, the context should be that the existing setup needs repairing while the new one is built on its foundations. Low pay and job insecurity mean that universities are poor employers despite the liberal intentions of many who work in them. Teaching is undervalued and thousands of researchers are facing a future in which the funding council cannot afford to support their work. And there is no agreement on how to fund the students whose numbers are supposed to be increasing.

The upshot is that there is virtually no area of academic life where the future is stable. As the principal paymaster, the government's first duty is to admit this: and its second is to be clear about which of its ambitions it is willing to pay for. Ideally, that will involve properly funded universities for everyone who can benefit from attending one. But the issue is of such educational, economic and social importance that clarity on the answers is the first essential.

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