Bread and scrape I

March 3, 1995

Higher Education Funding Council for England allocations for the academic year 1995/96 are more of the same; steady down the slope to mediocrity. There is nothing dramatic: nothing glaringly unfair; great care has been taken to see that no one suffers cuts which might precipitate an embarrassing crisis; it is just the same old squeeze applied this time to both teaching and research money; bread and scrape again today.

Application of "efficiency gains" to research as well as to teaching, combined with research audit systems and changes designed to make units of funding for research less anomalous, have produced some prestigious losers this year (Imperial, Manchester) as well as some grateful recipients who benefit from the squeeze on teaching being less tight (Derby).

Today's statistics need to be treated with caution. HEFCE is not the only source of revenue for universities and colleges. For some it is a relatively small player. The London Business School, for instance, shows a spectacular percentage increase again this year but funding council money is only for core funding and research: LBS's students pay for their teaching. Similarly the tables show spectacular percentage gains in some colleges where HEFCE funds courses but the sums of money are small. The student numbers, the MASNS, are also a snare, giving no real indication of the overall size of an institution, since they apply only to award-holding students. Increasing numbers of students in higher education do not fall into this catagory. Manchester Metropolitian University, for example, which tops the MASNS's list with 18,040 students, in fact has 28,540 enrolled.

The circular with this week's allocation makes clear the council's increasingly defined (restricted?) role as consolidation bites: each institution will be signing a contract for the delivery of teaching and research which will specify "the contract student numbers which the institution is required to deliver . . ." This is contract purchase of higher education and research by Government from autonomous providers. What is emerging is the kind of mixed public/private set-up politicans say they want to develop. This will change the council's relationship with "the system" too. In the days of the University Grants Committee, with its academic domination, it was accepted that the UGC would plan the development of universities, special pleading went on discretely in gentlemen's clubs. But as universities develop other activities and sources of income, and the funding council settles into its role as major customer, it will have less overall authority.

This can indeed be seen already. This week, HEFCE chief executive, Graeme Davies, expressed his irritation at the log-rolling of the Russell Group and the 94 Group. Irritation is understandable: Professor Davies's life is not made easier by the heavy mob lobbying for special protection. But his remarks also betray his powerlessness. These are independent universities who can set up any cabals they choose. In today's sauve qui peut atmosphere the interests of "the system" come a long way down institutions' list of priorities.

This week's allocations show that HEFCE is in any case quite capable of resisting. Special pleading by teaching-led institutions has had more effect than that by the research elite. The overall aim has been to constrain divergence: a wise move when anything else would drive losers into insolvency and wreck students' prospects.

But Professor Davies's irritation may betray more than that: whatever he does with the money, it is unlikely he can prevent increasing differentiation. The elite is increasingly beyond the council's control Bread and scrape II

Last week's debate in the House of Commons on student support provided an opportunity which all concerned ducked. The Government, unwilling to do anything radical about student support, chips away at what is available, principally in this case at the older student's allowance, which is being abolished, - although there is some relief for those already on access courses (see front page).

The Government has failed to do anything about reforming a system now scandalously unfair. The Labour Party meanwhile made hay from hard cases but is markedly reluctant to make substantive promises of reform.

Some students are having an appalling time making ends meet. Among them are students on courses not eligible for mandatory grants who cannot get discretionary grants; older students, like the student whose plight was cited in last week's debate, who have given up their jobs in order to study, or have homes and families to support; part-timers who get no help at all; full-timers who were left without their loans through the winter and/or whose parents do not pay their assessed contributions.

Little has been done to sort out the mess. We still wait, for example, for a response to the Gulbenkian study of discretionary grants: grants likely to suffer further as local authorities try to meet the teachers' pay award. We wait also on the National Audit Office's report on the Loans Company.

It is a pity then that students themselves are making such a poor fist of fighting for reform.

This may be because the running is made by full-time students entitled to mandatory awards. These students are a highly privileged group. Their fees are paid for them. They are eligible for means-tested grants and entitled to loans on terms which would be the envy of any mortgage-payer. If not enough to pay for Christmas presents (see page 14), grants and loans together are at least a substantial contribution to living costs. The cry of poverty from such students insults those who are struggling without equivalent subsidies. Equating debt with hardship is disingenuous. Too many of those who claim their studies are damaged because they have to take jobs during termtime to make ends meet, work rather than draw the loans available to them. This is an irresponsible waste of the opportunities for study made available to them courtesy of the taxpayer. They also take jobs needed by those with no access to grants and loans, or whose parents should but do not pay.

Students are caught in the hinge of a change in society which is affecting other groups as well. Fathers are now expected to pay for their first families. Ex-husbands may be required to share their pensions with their ex-wives. Elderly people are having to pay for care, thereby disappointing the expectations of their heirs. Parents are having to support their children for longer, including through their years of higher education. Perhaps the Child Support Agency should be given the job of ensuring parental contributions to grants are paid.

This is the fruit of taxpayer revolt. While it continues - and only a foolhardy politician who would repeat Walter Mondale's 1984 gamble in the US presidential race of promising higher taxes in the belief that it was over - the name of the game will be family dependency for those who can and targetted benefits for those who cannot. Hateful as it may be, students would do better to stop whingeing and turn their intellectual skills to devising something both affordable and better. Clearly no one else will.

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