Grasp the levy now

February 2, 1996

This week, for the first time since last November's Budget, the vice chancellors have succeeded in attracting national attention to the funding crisis in universities. They have done so by threatening to take the initiative.

This week too, however, there was widespread scepticism, not least in the Department for Education and Employment, as to whether the threat would turn into agreement to act when the vice chancellors meet today. "Let's just wait and see what they say," was the view; not even "let's wait and see what they do."

The THES's view, that students should contribute and that a proper loans scheme should be put in place so that they can do so only when they have graduated and are earning, has been frequently rehearsed. So has the view that the universities should act themselves to force the politicians' hand.

The vice chancellors now have in Gareth Roberts a chairman who is willing to take a lead. They have, if not support, then wider acceptance from students and staff than was readily evident from this week's huffing and puffing that something must be done; that Government and opposition must some-how be forced to address the funding issue; and that this implies a charge of some kind.

The survey conducted by the student union officers group New Solutions, reported last week, revealed a recognition by many students that they should contribute something to tuition costs. Discussions at the Association of University Teachers' council meeting last week came closer than is evident from the publicly agreed motions to accepting the idea of some sort of levy such as the vice chancellors will today consider.

Notions of "fairness", as discussed by Geoff Mulgan (page 14), are beginning to influence the debate in favour of some contribution from those who benefit from university education - not least so that expansion can be resumed, redundancies avoided and something more paid to those who provide that education.

The vice chancellors have today grasped the only lever available to them to force change. Many expect them to shrink from using it. Their collective credibility depends on disappointing that expectation. It will then be up to the politicians to come up with something better.

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