Last week saw the Tory draft manifesto, with its promise that universities could break free from government - and take a substantial alimony with them as they went. Next week comes the Liberal Democrat party conference, and motions deploring tuition fees and the abolition of grants. After that is Labour, with a National Policy Forum document stressing higher education's role in social justice and access, the subject of new government funding this week (page 1).
Whatever else this proves, it shows that the need for a new Dearing-type review of higher education is urgent. The original Dearing review served the purpose, convenient to all parties, of putting higher education off the agenda for the 1997 general election.
We are now facing a 2001 election in which higher education will raise divisive issues of significant public concern. When 30 per cent of school leavers go to college, a sector of British life that was once obscure moves to centre stage.
The Liberal Democrats will discuss ideas that include the abolition of tuition fees, the reintroduction of grants and a legal bar on the charging of top-up fees. Their plans would cost the taxpayer dear. Although the party believes that voters are prepared to pay higher taxes for better education, it could be that the enthusiasm they have for schools does not extend to better university funding.
The Conservative approach, in contrast, offers no backward glances. Instead, it proposes the creation of the kind of mixed economy that Tories hate in other spheres. Conservatives who dislike the Post Office monopoly of letter deliveries see every reason why the government should decide who can award degrees. In an internationally competitive higher education market, government approval for institutions is a minimum expectation. In their proposals, this power would remain in the hands of the state, along with the ultimate responsibility for a wide expanse of the university system. While a small group of universities might opt for a fat endowment to break free, most would not. Even if universities wanted to opt out of state funding, there is no cheque any chancellor would write that would replace this money, allow for expansion and create endowments for access across the sector. Simon Baatz's letter setting out the figures for some of the top US institutions (opposite) makes it clear that the sums would be beyond the scope even of the impending telephone auction bonanza.
This means that this week's meeting of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has fundamental questions to address. The main one is the future of a unitary university system. The arrival of the Scottish Parliament has meant significant national differences within the university system. And anyone glancing at research spending in British universities knows that the post-1992 institutions have parity only on paper. There can be no doubt that the Conservatives have asked the right questions, despite the eccentricities of their answers.
The meeting of vice-chancellors is facing up to the fact that top-up fees, while attractive to the institutions capable of charging them, would make it clear that the universities differ in mission, not only in status. At the end of a 20th century that started with little more than a dozen British universities and ended with more than 100, this is not a surprise. But it is a shock. Genuine planning and thought should be given to the future shape of the system. The alternative is for change to happen opportunistically. Politicians' promises that top-up fees will be ruled out are by their nature temporary, but the change that would accompany their arrival would be permanent. Many stakeholders - staff, students, employers, politicians and others - need to participate in the thinking about what happens next.