Higher education must continue to expand or risk reinforcing social discrimination against disadvantaged groups, a vice-chancellor said this week.
Sir David Watson, vice-chancellor of Brighton University and a member of the Universities UK longer-term strategy group, warned delegates at this week's Liberal Democrat conference that the government had to fully fund expansion in higher education or risk widening the gap between society's haves and the have-nots.
Sir David, speaking at a fringe meeting hosted by the Association of University Teachers, said: "Higher education is at a crossroads: either we overcome social discrimination or we reinforce it.
"The only way to continue to make higher education fairer is to allow it to continue to expand. Anything else risks pulling up the ladder on those coming through the system.
"Universities are delivering, in terms of the government's social and economic priorities, but the money is not forthcoming."
Sir David said that universities were worse off than they were before the publication of the Dearing report on higher education in 1997. The report recommended increasing the numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, paid for by wealthier students paying tuition fees. This was envisaged as additional income for universities, but instead the government reduced the teaching grant by an equivalent amount.
Sir David said: "Since 1994, public funding of universities has gone up, in real terms, by 2.4 per cent while private funding has gone up by 22.9 per cent. Public funding has not fulfiled its part of the Dearing compact. But universities have heroically diversified their sources of income.
"There are not many votes in higher education, yet. There is a political ambivalence. The government wants market forces in higher education but it also wants arm's-length micro-management. At the end of the day, politicians want to take the credit but not share in the risks."
Sir David paid tribute to the staff in higher education, who, he said, had borne the brunt of underfunding year-on-year. He said: "When the history of the past two decades is written, the staff contribution in higher education will come across as one of the unsung success stories of the public service."
But Sir David warned against stand-alone solutions to the funding problems in higher education. Referring to the government's strategic review of higher education, he said: "Single-item solutions, such as top-up fees, risk breaking up the sector into two or more sub-sets."