Break the deadlock

February 9, 1996

Edvard Munch's The Scream might be the logo of universities and colleges: the horrified, silent scream of those who see destruction and cannot make the world hear. What does it take to win recognition for the achievement of colleges and universities, to win acknowledgement that these valuable assets are in danger, to get agreement on what to do? "How much longer can this go on?" Ruth Gee asks (page 13). The ghastly answer: it can all too easily go on and on.

Last week the vice chancellors rattled ministers with their threat to impose an enrolment levy - the only effective weapon available to them. This week, no clear decision made, they have retreated behind closed doors, licking wounds inflicted by people with most to lose from the stalemate - students and staff.

Has anything been achieved? It is too soon to tell. Vice chancellors have been promised a statement from the Secretary of State by next Friday. Indications this week do not suggest dramatic action. There are rumours of Government rewrites of the higher education review paper to include more options. Higher education minister Eric Forth did not seem inclined to accept the ideas set out in the Conservative Political Centre paper formally published this week (it was printed in The THES October 6, 1995). Rules governing the Private Finance Initiative may perhaps be revised. But nothing suggests real money or action.

Meanwhile, the situation is heart-breaking. We have in our colleges and universities skill, dedication and creativity that have delivered productivity gains of 30 per cent in five years. Far more people have been given opportunities to study. Curricula have been developed to meet new needs. The quality of student experience has deteriorated, but by and large standards have been maintained. The shift to a mass system has been accomplished. But these achievements need to be entrenched with resumed expansion, more equitable student support, and an end to pay erosion. Instead higher education numbers are frozen, killing aspiration; cuts are in the pipeline, meaning redundancies - Rotherham (page 1) will not be alone - and universities and colleges will become yet tattier.

Failing action next week what can be done? Campaigning for more public money has been tried and has failed. Making the campaigning more disruptive - as some might wish - would accelerate decline, as it did in schools, and alienate foreign students whose fees subsidise British students as well as disrupt existing students' chances of learning.

The Association of University Teachers has concluded that the only way to break the paralysis is to set up a Royal Commission. They may be right. If the Government set it up at least they could comfort themselves that someone else would be likely to have to implement the findings.

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