Phil Baty reports on Natfhe's angry mood at the union's Torquay conference
Prime minister Tony Blair's commitment to raise university participation to 50 per cent is heading for humiliating failure after lecturers' union Natfhe joined the Association of University Teachers this week in resoundingly rejecting the plan unless it brings massive pay and funding increases.
The two unions represent well over 100,000 of the lecturers who will have to deliver the policy.
Vice-chancellors are also warning privately that they will not cooperate without the right investment.
At its annual conference in Torquay, Natfhe unanimously carried a motion opposing the expansion. The motion, from the union's higher education executive committee, said: "We reject calls for a 50 per cent target, which are not matched by sufficient funding both to maintain quality and to offer enough support to those non-traditional students who require it.
"A notional experience of higher education with high drop-out rates and funded, like the earlier expansion, at the expense of lecturers, will be resisted strongly."
The union is bidding for a 15 per cent pay increase and is ready to go on strike for it in the autumn. It wants the abolition of tuition fees, the return of maintenance grants and a massive funding injection for teaching and research.
Jill Jones, chair of the Natfhe higher education committee, said that the union had always believed that education should be open to all those who could benefit but the system was "bulging under enormous stress".
Alan Cousins, another committee member, said: "Even Ron Dearing said that if we had a choice between 50 per cent and sustaining quality, we must sustain quality." Lecturers have been covering up the fact that they are offering a "second-rate education" and must now lift the lid on what has become a "national scandal", delegates heard.
Inner London branch rep Mary Davis said that academics had been unwilling to "blow the whistle" on how bad the years of under-investment and neglect had allowed British university education to become. They wanted to maintain a pride in what they did and to keep a competitive advantage over rivals, but academics had to come clean in the pursuit of proper pay and funding, she said.
"We once had something that was very attractive, that was good. But we now have an appalling modularised, semesterised system that reduces everything to the lowest common denominator. It is almost embarrassing to deliver the kind of courses I deliver. Students don't know that what they are getting is terrible," Professor Davis said.
She said that reduced staff-student contact time meant that "tutorial" was a word barely used anymore. Another delegate said that he had to conduct his tutorials "at the cheese counter at Sainsbury's", where his students worked all hours, leaving them with no time for their courses.
Professor Davis said that semesterisation had left lecturers to deliver 15-week courses in 12 weeks. "The system is creaking, it's no good. They've wrecked it, and we are the only ones who can revive it," she said.
A motion from the Southern region, carried unanimously, warned of the "damaging trend" for university managers to cut lecturers' contact time with students and worsen the student-staff ratio.
Peter Samways of Southampton Institute said: "We have students who have lots of potential and ability but that needs nurturing. The management does not want to recognise that, or worse, they rubbish it."
Delegates also sent out clear warnings that many new universities, which will teach the bulk of the non-traditional students, are facing a recruitment crisis. The introduction of "market anarchy" with flexibility over maximum student numbers had allowed older universities to poach students. Courses were closing and entire universities were at risk, the delegates heard.
A motion from the Outer London region, also carried unanimously, blamed student debt for recruitment problems and called on the government to introduce "special measures urgently to avoid creating a recruitment hiatus in September 2002" caused by uncertainty over student funding arrangements.