Last Sunday I told the Labour party's national education conference that I had changed my mind about the further expansion of the number of students entering higher education. I did so with the greatest regret since I believe that everyone who is able and willing to take advantage of higher education should be welcomed into the system. But the system as it stands today simply cannot cope, not without a very substantial injection of funds.
Last year, I argued at the Confederation of British Industry's higher education conference that the target participation rate for 18 to 21-year-olds should increase from 32 per cent to more than 40 per cent. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals has a very similar view. It is a policy shared by the National Union of Students and most education trade unions.
At my own institution, numbers have just about doubled over the past ten years. I am proud of our students, of whom 72 per cent are mature, 54 per cent are women and a third are from minority ethnic groups. Many of our students come from the most deprived schools in London and, therefore, some of the most deprived in the country. I am proud of them because they have fought hard to escape from the downward spiral of neglect and poverty and have succeeded as a result of their enthusiasm, their drive and energy.
But far from rewarding this and other universities for following the Government's own higher education expansionist policy, we have been penalised. While total public expenditure on higher education has increased, it has failed to keep pace with the growth in student numbers. Universities have suffered a 4 per cent cut in their grant year after year. There is insufficient money either to build or maintain teaching accommodation and libraries and there is no public funding at all for residential accommodation.
If a Labour government is returned at the next general election, would the financing of higher education improve? It would cost Pounds 1.3 billion simply to take care of buildings that have fallen into disrepair, to say nothing of meeting the cost of restocking libraries and providing up-to-date technical equipment.
If the price of higher education expansion was to be the introduction of tuition fees for full-time degree students, I would oppose it. I regard free tuition for the first degree, whether studied full or part-time as a basic entitlement. If the price of such expansion was the continuation of the current regressive, inefficient and discredited student loans arrangements, I would also oppose it. And if the price of further expansion of higher education was the continuation of year on year cuts to university budgets which now threaten the quality of our work I should be totally against it. That is why I told Sunday's conference that it would make better sense to pause.
Instead, I recommended to conference that it would be better to divert what public money is available to the nation's schools. Like the universities, they have been starved of much-needed funds. The time has come for us now to consider carefully and honestly where our priorities lie. Our children's basic education, their literacy and numeracy, have been scandalously neglected by government. Labour's commitment to pre-school, primary and secondary education is critical to the wider needs of our society, the economy and higher education. Unless we manage to strengthen the foundations of our public education system, entry to higher education will dry up - whether we like it or not.
We need to unlock our people's true potential and combat a situation in which the professional and middle classes make up 25 per cent of the population, but continue to constitute 66 per cent of students in higher education. We need to fund schools and teachers properly. Only then should we return to an expansionist higher education policy.
Thereafter I would wish to see, not 40 per cent but more than 60 per cent of 18 to 21-year-olds entering our universities and colleges of higher education, and to see further increases in the number of adult and distance learners.
All I am able to see at the present is the re-appearance of old Britain, a class-ridden Britain based on weeding out instead of including in. It is a Britain which wastes its intellectual and creative assets rather than investing in them, a Britain that is divided by the fissures of social background and stunted opportunity. I want to see the creation of an accountable public education system which commands popular support and which will liberate all of our people.
Brian Roper is vice chancellor and chief executive of the University of North London.