Control and poverty are constricting expansion

July 6, 2001

How can we welcome 50 per cent of school-leavers when we're strapped into a cash straitjacket? asks Martin Gaskell.

This week I announced my intention to retire as rector of University College Northampton in a year's time. It is essentially a personal decision: after 13 years as chief executive, I (and the institution) will be ready for a change.

But underlying this is a sense of disaffection with what is happening to higher education. There is a growing contradiction between the government's wish that 50 per cent of school-leavers should move into higher education by 2010 and the basis on which we are expected to manage our budgets.

Special programmes and projects appear to be given precedence over the need to have a secure base of properly funded institutions, effectively run and delivering a high standard of education. Policies so fixed on special projects and programmes, for which funding is time limited, overlook the harm caused by the yearly cut in real terms of core funding, despite the marginal relief in 2001-02.

Staff have to spend a disproportionate time preparing bids for funds for special purposes for which money has been ring-fenced. Why cannot universities and colleges be left for the most part to decide how funding should be used in support of their missions?

At the same time, we have to put more resources into collecting fees from students. We have become debt collectors, and we are damned if we do and damned if we don't. While criticised for taking sanctions against students, we have a legal obligation to collect fees and a moral one in respect of students who do pay.

I have always been committed to students contributing to the cost of their education. But the ill-thought-out scheme, rushed through without consultation and against the advice of the Dearing committee, has proved detrimental to relations between universities and their students.

It is not surprising that the government's drive to boost student numbers is faltering.

There is sufficient evidence to show that low-income students are increasingly unlikely to risk the investment. It is not just the cost, but the fact that financial pressures while on the course can affect their chances of success. Risk of failure discourages prospective students from less advantaged backgrounds. Students from such backgrounds will end up leaving with greater debts than their more advantaged peers. The indication from the incoming minister for higher education of the possibility of a future review of the student support system, including a look at extending targeted maintenance grants, is encouraging. It is hard to see how the government can achieve expansion without an increase in funding. Ahead of the publication of the Universities UK report on funding options, it ruled out top-up fees in the lifetime of this Parliament, sidelining all the detailed work of Sir William Taylor's committee.

Whatever their views on the options, every vice-chancellor agrees that "we cannot go on like this". We are faced with declining staff-to-student ratios, deteriorating libraries and lecture theatres, out-of-date equipment and, most seriously, underpaid staff. Higher education faces a crisis in recruiting and retaining high-grade academics, whose goodwill can no longer be presumed.

The government says it recognises the importance of higher education for the nation's health and wealth. It places universities at the heart of policies aimed at national modernisation through the new knowledge economy. This is only half a view of what universities should be about. It limits goals to social requirements with a primarily economic function. This is a vital role for higher education, but it must also be about culture and civilisation, the understanding of society and the criticism of society.

Universities have a contribution to make to the whole of life, not just the economic aspect, and certainly not just what government determines as important.

I fear a government wanting to impose a social and economic agenda on universities, wanting greater uniformity and using funding levers to realise ambitions that, although commendable, may not be compatible with institutional missions. I fear for the reduction in institutional autonomy. I fear short-term financial pressures will undermine longer-term quality. But, most of all, I fear for the diminution in the diversity of our higher education and the loss of the freedom and opportunity for institutions to pursue their own missions and respond to proper government aspirations in the manner most appropriate to that organisation. We must promote and fund diversity.

Having survived the straitjacket of former organisational structures and funding regimes, I despair at the return to a different kind of straitjacket. The health of higher education demands its resistance before it is too late.

Martin Gaskell is rector of University College Northampton.

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