Healthy budget fails to support mass learning

March 24, 2000

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Tel 020 7782 3000 Email Website There was no joy in this week's budget for higher education. Some extra help was announced for poorer students to boost participation in further education but nothing to comfort those who must provide for them, either in further or higher education. This is not a surprise with the second comprehensive spending review in progress. What is surprising is that the political anxiety about the National Health Service has reached a point where the CSR has been overridden in that area. Health is replacing education as the mantra for the next election.

Things may look better when the CSR is announced but the odds cannot be good. And, meanwhile, higher education, unlike other parts of the education service, is feeling chill winds of international and commercial competition (page 13).

What is to be done? As things are, a small (too small) group of research-intensive universities are pulling away from the pack taking with them the lion's share of the country's research funding (pages 6 and 7). They are doing a fine job but they are only a small part of higher education. They cannot provide the mass higher education for half the population promised by the prime minister. Those left to struggle with that challenge are becoming increasingly depressed.

Unfortunately, doing nothing is always an option. If taken, the outlook is bleak. A few universities will be world class. Sooner or later these will break from the national system, introduce their own fees, raise charitable and commercial funds (helped by the budget) and set up their own quality regime to escape a national system that seems oppressive (page 3). Because of the determination with which rich parents pursue places at "the best" universities, this will powerfully reinforce social privilege.

There has to be a better way. If the government is wise it will establish a new inquiry into higher education now with an open remit to think broadly about what is required of universities in a modern economy and how that can be secured given the money available. This should not be a matter of quick political fixes. It should not get into the minutae of frameworks, codes and compacts. It must be allowed to contemplate the possibility of denationalisation - subject, of course, to regulation.

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