The Greenaway report makes the case for differential fees -accompanied by scholarships, bursaries and income-contingent loans - in the most rigorous terms yet. The report's authors, themselves persuaded of the case, are disappointed that the Russell Group, which commissioned it, has not backed it. Instead it will form just another submission to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' larger working party. Members of the Russell Group claim to be surprised that the report contained any recommendation at all and are distancing themselves from it as politically naive. Apparently they expected no more than an analysis of the various options.
By making its trenchant recommendation, Greenaway has infringed the rules of a long-established game: set up a working group; explore a "range of options"; utter dire warnings about quality and competitiveness; and hope that the government will make the disagreeable decisions or find extra cash.
Experience suggests, however, that the government will do neither. Labour's spinners are unlikely to want to risk alienating aspirant middle-class families by allowing higher fees. They may instead try to make it appear that there is extra money so no such move is necessary.
Wednesday's announcement of extra money for research will be useful in this respect. It will help placate the Russell Group's hawks and will deflect attention from the spending review. The review may appear to increase spending, but even optimists expect it to inflict at least a 1 per cent per capita cut in funding for teaching, which will hit most heavily those universities with least cushioning from research. By contrast, the Greenaway proposals would make new universities the largest gainers. The choice that Greenaway and his colleagues hope to force politicans, higher education staff and students to confront is stark: pay or decay. This is one of the toughest decisions Mr Blair's government is likely to face. Everyone hates it, especially students (see page 31). No one relishes the possible disruption higher fees might provoke. No one wants to risk making it even harder to correct higher education's longstanding social bias. But the alternative is also grim: a system that boasts a few good research universities with a limited number of fiercely fought-over places, plus a raft of large, tatty universities struggling to provide the majority of students with a good education.