Euro-wide paralysis

October 26, 1995

Across Europe governments - and oppositions - are in trouble over the political and economic implications of the rapid transition to mass higher education.

In just a few years aspirations have turned to expectations and - despite discreet efforts to dampen demand in the United Kingdom - a university education is likely to remain a touchstone of status for Europe's increasingly affluent middle classes.

The issue that continues to dog the politicians, whether in the UK, France, Germany or Iberia, is how to finance universities to keep pace with demand without short changing those aspiring students with a shoddy, low-quality university experience.

The solutions vary but each is well known, well researched, and just as difficult to espouse for politicians with an eye on the electorate.

To borrow a phrase from the era in which the numbers boom began, the politicians are "frit". Already the new Socialist government in Portugal has announced it is to suspend the outgoing Social Democrat fees law which provoked student anger but would have underwritten expansion that has already taken place. The Irish government has decided to abolish fees, but the universities are increasingly worried about their future income.

The French government may have embarked on the "national consultation" promised by Jacques Chirac during his election campaign. But, opening the initiative at Cergy-Pontoise University in the Paris suburbs, Francois Bayrou's plea for a "change of method" placed the onus for initiating reform firmly on the universities.

"Nothing changes in the universities because the decisions are always taken at the top," he complained, calling instead for students and academics to come up with proposals. Student unions, university presidents and academics have been asked to submit written contributions within a fortnight.

Elsewhere in Europe the crisis has plumbed even greater depths. In Greece the university chancellors have told Mr Papandreou's government that enough is enough, that no money means closure rather than a continued decline in the quality of the sector.

Here, as Brian Roper points out below, no party is going to pick up the bill for publicly-funded expansion. The Conservatives saw the power of the middle-class postbag when the late Lord Joseph tried to reintroduce means-testing to tuition fees, and neither of the main opposition parties are likely to risk alienating hard won, middle-class support when the inevitable crunch comes at the ballot box.

In the almost universal drive to minimise personal taxation, they calculate (rightly) that taxpayers would rebel at the tax levels needed to provide an open-ended public subsidy for an expanding system. Equally, a shift of the burden to the ultimate beneficiaries, those students who by virtue of the level of their education are likely to become part of the same middl- class constituency, is fraught with electoral difficulties.

Damned if they do and damned if they don't, the temptation for the politicians to sit on their hands is beguiling.

But how much longer can the issue be evaded? In Greece, surely, not long. There is already a tradition for the higher social groups to send their offspring across Europe to avoid the inadequacies of the state system at home. It is only a matter of time - and business acumen - before the private sector eventually emerges in Athens despite the reluctance of the government.

In Spain and Portugal the private sector is already acting as a safety valve for the affluent who regard a university education, particularly in the rapid growth area of business studies, as a final stage in the grooming process for a social elite.

In the absence of political resolve, the spectre looms of a growing private sector in many parts of Europe, some of it of questionable quality, siphoning off the brightest or the richest students, or both, while state universities spiral downwards into impoverished, under-resourced mediocrity or worse.

That way no one wins, except perhaps the politicians who will seek to slither out of responsibility for the consequences of their failure to act.

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