Education chief Sir Michael Bichard launched an extraordinary attack on the higher education sector this week by saying that universities are well-funded, lecturers well-paid and problems partly of institutions' own making.
The permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment angered vice-chancellors and lecturers' unions with his robust rebuttal of claims that the sector must have more cash or lurch into crisis.
Sir Michael was giving evidence to the House of Commons' education select committee on Tuesday about the DFEE's annual report. MPs were anxious to quiz him about university funding. The committee is about to launch an inquiry into higher education.
Sir Michael had already dismissed claims that further education was still a Cinderella sector, pointing to substantial investment in the comprehensive spending review. But on higher education he told MPs: "I hear the complaints, but there has been substantial investment. The point does need to be made that in 1998-99 to 2001-02, higher education will have seen an increase of 11 per cent in real termsI so (the sector) is not exactly starved."
MPs asked Sir Michael how the sector could compete globally if some of its brightest academics were being lured by higher pay to the United States and elsewhere. Committee chairman Barry Sheerman (Lab, Huddersfield) suggested that action was required "pretty damned fast" to stop this.
But Sir Michael, who is paid between Pounds 105,00 and Pounds 110,000, said: "If we look at UK salaries for lecturers then they are not doing that badly. I agree that there is a need to look at the issues, but not for knee-jerk action."
He suggested that throwing more state money at universities for higher academic salaries was not the answer.
Sir Michael said: "I would like to see the sector face up to issues of leadership and management and about how effective some of its decision-making processes are. Are they all organised to deal with the threats and challenges that we are talking about? I would suggest that some are not."
Equal pay for female academics was one area where universities could do more to help themselves, Sir Michael said. He said that it was partly a management problem that there were so few (10 per cent) female professors.
Cold water was poured on top-up fees. Sir Michael said: "Advocacy of top-up fees has been something of a knee-jerk action. What we want the sector to do is step back and ask, 'What are the objectives of higher education over the next ten years?'" A spokeswoman for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said:
"Barry Sheerman is right that action is needed pretty damned fast. Government has a role in funding higher education to meet the sector's and the government's goals on competitiveness and social inclusion. Its ambitions will seem like empty pledges if the funding to deliver these is not found."
David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "Staff pay, retirement of an ageing staff, endemic discrimination and casual employment of leading UK scientists have brought the system to crisis point. The art lies in trying to avoid the icebergs, not reacting to the collision."
Tom Wilson, head of universities at lecturers' union Natfhe, said:
"Natfhe's latest research clearly showed that women were paid less in almost every grade and subject. It is demonstrably not just due to too few senior women."