Bluff and nonsense

May 10, 1996

British universities have launched a campaign aimed at reversing cuts in funding imposed last autumn. They are demanding a halt to the squeeze on per capita funding, restoration of capital allocations, and tax breaks.

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals has been criticised, quite unfairly, for not campaigning hard enough against cuts imposed on universities. The assumption implicit in the criticism being that they had only to campaign and the money would flow. In terms reminiscent of unpopular political parties, they stood accused of failing to get the message over to politicians and public.

This year's submissions to the annual public expenditure survey by the CVCP and the Association of University Teachers could hardly be clearer: there is not enough money to maintain quality; a fall in quality will damage the country's economic competitiveness; more money must be found and it must be found this autumn. Waiting for the outcome of the Dearing inquiry into higher education, whose recommendations cannot realistically be expected to change anything before 1999, is not, they say, acceptable. Let us hope the campaign succeeds. More money is urgently needed and certainly before 1999 and most particularly it is needed to pay staff properly.

But it would be foolish of the universities to allow themselves, in hoping for the best, to neglect to plan for the worst. The Government is overspent. Its tax and VAT receipts are below expectations. Big bills are coming for the disposal of mad cows. And this week they have set about confronting the formidable costs of caring for an ageing population. No surprise then that last month the permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment, Michael Bichard, was in the expectation lowering business when he told vice chancellors to expect a worse budget this autumn than last. So how are universities to ensure that their nice crisp message is heard and acted upon? And what will they do if it is not? The two questions are, of course, one, since only some credible threat of action, if the money is not forthcoming, has any chance of producing it.

Last winter, vice chancellors briefly clutched a weapon with evident power to frighten politicians into action with their threat of a Pounds 300 entry levy. The result: the Dearing committee hastily set up with all-party support to stall the universities until after the election.

But then what? The chairmen of university councils ran to the Government to reassure them that they would never allow anything so irresponsible. Staff and students mobilised in opposition. Sheepish vice chancellors backed off, saying they would wait and see what happened in November. Even the setting up of the Dearing committee lost its urgency: as The THES went to press details of membership and remit, due this week, were still not available.

Meanwhile the PES round is getting going. November is drawing nearer. If the postponed threat is to be reactivated with any semblance of credibility, universities should be considering now what to tell students who plan to apply to them this autumn for admission in 1997. Lack of any signs of preparation will give the politicians the idea that the levy threat was indeed empty and they can safely give such money as may be available to others.

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