Mr Clarke is to be congratulated on his clarity. For the new Budget settlement makes it clear that British universities can no longer hope that they will be able to offer decent teaching in decent premises with decent equipment and decent staff. The settlement is truly an indecent proposal.
Our only hope is to establish some independence from Government, and that can only begin to be done by the introduction of top-up fees.
Three main arguments are used against this proposal. First, that university education should be free to all. But the steady erosion of the maintenance grant has ensured that already it is free to none.
Second, the short-termism of those vice chancellors skilled in such matters will prevent a united camp. It would indeed be unwise to underestimate such short termism, but surely there are enough vice chancellors still with the courage to press forward in the interests of the sector as a whole.
Third, that a Labour government will come to our rescue. Those who wish to live in cloud-cuckoo land are free to do so, but the rest of us cannot afford such day-dreams.
We all know that universities are in measurable decline. To allow that decline to continue would be irresponsibility of the highest order.
Top-up fees by themselves will do no more than slow that decline and give us some breathing space. They are an essential first step in the attempt to re-establish, in the face of Government opposition, a system of which we can hope to be proud and which will offer students and the community at large the educational system they deserve.
Smith Professor of English language
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