Powerhouses of success need fuel as well as figures

May 19, 2000

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's latest figures (pages 6-7) put only Norway ahead of the United Kingdom in the proportion of the population getting degrees. By 1997 - before the present government planned further expansion - the UK had passed the United States in percentage graduating.

The OECD's picture of success dispels a few myths. Everyone is not flocking to business, media studies and law: the UK leads in numbers studying information technology, science and technology. Nor are UK academics alone in subsidising expansion. Almost everywhere in the rich world student numbers have grown faster than the cash to pay for them.

This is success. And very nice too. But, with the comprehensive spending review entering its final phases, it will not help the case for more public money. That case appears to be failing. The Association of University Teachers has scored an own goal by claiming universities have higher surpluses than expected and Sir Michael Bichard, permanent secretary of the education and employment department, told the House of Commons that universities are well-off and staff well-paid. This presumably means he has failed to get extra cash for higher education from the Treasury and is using attack as the best form of defence.

Sir Michael's figures, however, disingenuously conflate universities' public and private revenues. Raising private money is taking a heavy toll on academics' time. In such circumstances, lectures from Sir Michael on more effective management and facing up to the challenges go down badly.

If, however, he really believes a more definite vision of British higher education is needed, he could usefully do something about it. Three years ago Dearing recommended a new review in five years. Why not start now to prepare for the incoming government after the next election? If universities really are seen as the powerhouses of the economy, then those with a stake in their success need to get serious quickly about proper levels of investment.

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