The closure of a major UK university would "erode the public's confidence"
in higher education, Sir Howard Newby said this week in a clear sign that the Government would not allow troubled institutions to fold.
Giving evidence to the Education and Skills Select Committee this week, Sir Howard, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said "very vigorous intervention" had already taken place to keep institutions afloat.
He declined to reveal which institutions Hefce had helped out of financial trouble. But he told MPs: "Part of the raison d'être of Hefce is to intervene at an early stage before an institution gets into so much trouble that it would have to fold. If an instiution were to go out of business, there would be innocent victims caught up in thatIthe staff, the students and the community."
Sir Howard said Hefce had "in the recent past" been involved in brokering mergers and collaborations between universities to aid "weak and ailing insitutions".
"But if one university of a significant size were to fold, it would affect public confidence in higher education as a whole," he said.
Asked if universities' financial troubles were linked to poor management, he replied that even the best managed ones encountered problems "from time to time".
MPs also sought Sir Howard's thoughts on the closure of university science departments. He said more work needed to be done in schools to prevent pupils being "switched off" the sciences at the ages of 13 to 15. But he admitted that it was "worrying" that a "disproportionate number" of undergraduates studying science were drawn from independent schools.
Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire, suggested that too few state schools were offering pupils the opportunity to study physics, chemistry and biology separately, favouring instead single science exams.
Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, asked Sir Howard what effect the introduction of variable tuition fees next year would have on university admissions.
"There have been record applications this year, there has been something of a rush to enter higher education," he said. "There will probably be a drop in applications and admissions next year - that follows the evidence of what happened when the upfront fee was introduced."
Sir Howard added that the extra support available for students from poor backgrounds in the form of bursaries and grants would also lead to a rise in applications after 2006.