Now is the time to press for the huge sums needed for higher education expansion, says Stephen Court.
With another government spending review coming up next summer, the campaign for adequate funding for higher education is starting again. The review will coincide with the recommendation of the Dearing report that in 2002 there should be a follow-up inquiry into the state of United Kingdom higher education, financial and otherwise.
A lot of ground has already been prepared by Universities UK. Its commendable review has itemised higher education's additional funding needs and laid out the main options for raising the extra cash. UUK has estimated that the sector needs an additional £900 million a year for teaching by 2004-05. This is to pay for the government's goal of 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds entering higher education by 2010 and the cost of new Labour's policies of widening university access for students from poor backgrounds.
It is also to repair the damage done by repeated reductions in funding per student. The chief need here is to employ more academic staff (the ratio of students to lecturers has doubled in the past two decades). The extra money is also needed to boost staff pay and improve recruitment and retention - which should be a particular concern of the government in the 2002 spending review. And it is to enable universities to close the gap between the earnings of male and female employees (female academics earn 84 per cent of male earnings) and meet the legal requirement for equal pay for work of equal value.
In fact, UUK has probably underestimated the amount required. Its calculations are based on the level of spending per student in England. While spending per student in Wales is slightly lower than in England, it is about 25 per cent higher in Scotland. On pay and equal value, if the recommendations of the Bett report are to be followed, about £200 million needs to be added to the UUK sum. All told, the extra needed for teaching and learning in 2004-05 is more than £1.2 billion - and that is not including a large part of the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act.
Where is it going to come from? UUK is reluctant to make demands on the government. The issue is "wholly dependent on how favourably the government of the day is prepared to look upon the funding needs of higher education", UUK says. This sound rather defeatist. Most governments need persuasion on the merits of increased public spending. It is up to organisations such as UUK to argue the case for the universities in as many ways as possible. It is right to ask for more public funding because much of the additional need comes from the demands of government policy or the requirements of legislation. The government's repeated statements on the centrality of higher education to the future wellbeing of the UK indicate that the door to No 11 is already ajar. Experience during the last spending review shows the government can be persuaded.
Since the introduction of undergraduate tuition payments, new Labour has virtually halved the public contribution to fees. There have also been savings since the scrapping of the maintenance grant. Admittedly, fees are means-tested, and student loans receive a public subsidy, but the government has been able to cut its costs in higher education.
UUK's diffidence may stem from its desire to reduce universities' dependence on the public purse. Less reliance on government money means less central control. While this may strengthen institutions' autonomy - particularly vis-a-vis the incursions of the Quality Assurance Agency - it will be to the cost of students and their families. For if the government does not provide the bulk of the extra needed, those who principally benefit from the high rates of return attached to a degree will have to pay yet more.
Some form of graduate contribution to tuition costs - perhaps along Scottish lines - may well be justified. But there are other key beneficiaries. Employers need the knowledge and skills of graduates to remain competitive in an economy that increasingly values intellectual resources.
Since employers are often prepared to offer graduates golden hellos, could not such organisations with direct benefit from higher education be asked to make a financial contribution?
And what about those, such as most of the cabinet - and me, and thousands of others, for that matter - who went to university before the introduction of undergraduate fees and the scrapping of the maintenance grant, and whose careers have benefited from a degree? Perhaps, gulp, we should be asked to make a voluntary contribution in line with income.
Stephen Court, senior research officer at the Association of University Teachers, has written this article in a personal capacity.