Nineteen ninety-six is going to be the year when the universities either break for freedom or settle for tutelage and mediocrity. Graeme Davies, lately chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, now principal of Glasgow University, this month treated the Society for Research into Higher Education conference to a beguiling metaphor. He likened universities to a line of tortoises plodding towards a precipice.
Sooner or later, he suggested, some would reach the edge, though others might metamorphose into more sprightly beasts before they did so. Only the disappearance of the first tortoise into the abyss would, he suggested, force the Government finally to address funding issues in higher education.
Meanwhile, he warned, international competition in higher education was increasing and there were signs of growing recruitment difficulties because of low pay. Money would have to be found. He did not say from where.
This year has seen a hardening of attitude among vice chancellors, emboldened perhaps by their success in securing control of quality assurance. Early on they hoped that revamping the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, hiring a high-profile chief executive and electing a chairman with industrial experience and a robust approach to focussing their message might do the trick on funding too. It did not. In the November Budget money for higher education was cut still further, and almost no one outside the charmed circle noticed.
This - the indifference as much as the cut - has led the vice chancellors to call a special meeting for February 2 to decide what action they might take. Partly in the open, but more feverishly behind the scenes, they are canvassing views as to what options may be open to them and how the votes stack up. The option implied by Professor Davies, of letting a few tortoises topple off the cliff is not within vice chancellors' power. Removal of grant or safety net would be for the funding councils, and it is neither clear whether the Government would allow that sort of decision nor whether, after the costs of redundancy and of fitting students in elsewhere, it would save any money.
The second option, seized upon in the aftermath of the budget, was to threaten to cut numbers. This might be possible at the margin. Though recruiting for next September is now under way, conditional offers could be made stiffer. But public funding comes to higher education on a per capita basis: if institutions recruit fewer students they get less money. Nor do the funding councils have the power to alter this. They are Government agents under explicit instruction to fund a set number of student places at a unit cost 2 to 3 per cent below the previous year's level. They do not have the independence of the old University Grants Committee to do as they think best with the money provided. The net result would very likely be a switch by the Government of surplus higher education funds to further education where colleges would take up the displaced students.
The remaining options are to whinge or to charge. Whingeing has not worked yet. So growing numbers have been persuaded that however much they hate it, they now have no choice but to charge. One vice chancellor, a recent convert to this view, would like to see an explicitly named "Government deficit charge" applied across the system. It should, he suggests, be set at the level needed to make good the funding cut in real terms and the Government should be told that the charge would be lifted if the cut was restored - and increased pro rata if the cut was deepened.
It is a neat solution, quite within universities' power, which sticks the blame squarely on the Government. The question for the New Year will be whether enough brave souls will go for it. Even among vice chancellors that is improbable. And such a pact in itself would not be enough. Each university council would have to agree to impose the charge and they would have to do so in the teeth of lobbying from students and probably staff also.
That lobbying would be fierce. As the general secretary of Manchester University's student union wrote to The THES (December 15): "Student unions are absolutely united in their condemnation of top-up fees as the worst possible option for students." When responses to the consultation launched by student union officers in the autumn under the heading New Solutions become available in the New Year, they too can be expected to show particular opposition to this form of contribution by students.
Whenever The THES has polled readers on this subject, top-up fees have been the least favourite charging option among staff too. And the Labour party would be pouring petrol on the fire: party spokesmen have repeatedly said top-up fees would not be tolerated.
The case against top-up fees is not as strong as people suppose. Administered crassly they could, of course, deter access and increase student hardship. But that need not be the case. Universities know which students qualify for what level of local authority grant and could calibrate fees to those scales of need.
Second, if the student loans legislation currently at the committee stage were amended appropriately, fees could be met from loans repayable after graduation on an income contingent basis. They would, in effect, be no different from a postgraduation contribution with an option to pay up front. Third, top-up fees, paid direct to the university, are the only way to prevent the Treasury siphoning off student contributions for other purposes and leaving higher education as penurious as ever.
Fourth, top-up fees are the only option under universities' control. All other contribution schemes require Government action and imply Government control. With that control being used increasingly to gear universities to economic goals, the future of free-ranging scholarship and learning would be better served in universities with more independence. Universities should be not just about work, they should be about citizenship and civilisation, Professor A. H. Halsey told the Society for Research into Higher Education at Heriot Watt. Furthermore: "If people are going to profit from it they should pay for it. It has taken a lot for the left to get round to seeing that."
On a purely tactical level, Labour is foolish to try to frighten universities off taking some bold initiative now. Everyone knows fees will have to be charged sooner or later. They are being imposed the world over from South Africa to eastern Europe (page 14) and the exemption of some of Europe's best-heeled students looks increasingly odd. If Labour wants to avoid being the party which ended free higher education, it should now be egging the vice chancellors on.
So as the year turns, the screw turns. Only a very small window is left open for manoeuvre by the universities. It may already be too small, with bankruptcy and death eating away at the Conservatives' small majority. The universities certainly cannot bank on the luxury of using their February meeting to launch a debate; set up a study group; commission a paper. If they want to grab the initiative, they will need to make some quick decisions. Those should be to impose a fee and to propose the necessary detailed amendments to the Loans Bill to allow deferred payment. If they were successful, higher education's situation could be radically transformed in 1996. If not, the year will just see more demoralising grind of the kind Rita Donaghy describes below.