Hope remains, but the chance of more is receding

September 29, 2000

"My hope," said the minister for higher education in Brighton this week, "is that the money will be forthcoming."

The money in question is the as yet undisclosed spending planned for higher education in the second and third years of the spending review announced last July. News on that front is eagerly awaited. Clearly, the minister hopes that she can deliver on the reassuring promises she has from time to time made to increasingly anxious staff and institutions. That hope remains alive, and she at least has taken on board the need to do something, in particular about academic pay.

But union representatives will not be pleased at her hint that pay increases should go to the most deserving groups of staff. This sounds like performance-related and locally negotiated pay rather than across-the-board increases. This might not matter if the base were already adequate and the issue were finding the money for premium payments for internationally competitive stars. But we are not starting from here. There are substantial gender-based inequalities to be addressed, and the level of academic pay generally is now so depressed that it is deterring recruitment.

More serious was the lack of anything in the speeches of the chancellor, prime minister and education secretary to give substance to Baroness Blackstone's hope. Priority is being placed - and what citizen could really object? - on nursery places, secondary schools and hospital waiting lists. Beyond that, the chancellor's plans, which may have initially given Baroness Blackstone grounds for hope, are bound to be trimmed as ministers "listen" to the angry voices raised in recent weeks. Some fuel tax revenue will have to be written off, and more than planned will have to be found for pensioners.

With no refineries to blockade, no tractors to mobilise and no Lady Castle to fight its corner, there is little higher education can do, especially with the fees weapon confiscated, to ensure that universities and colleges are not pushed down the priority list by the need to keep middle Britain on side. Sadly, it looks as if higher education will face another general election with little more than the hope of jam tomorrow.

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