Responsibility for Bett rests with the Treasury

June 25, 1999

Last week the prime minister, Tony Blair, called for increased recruiting of overseas students. Was this coincidence? Overseas students have been one of the main sources of salvation for British higher education in the past 20 years with repeated cuts in per capita funding for British students driving ever more energetic marketing overseas. Without the income overseas students bring, Britain's universities and colleges would be a lot more run-down.

Mr Blair's enthusiasm for foreign earnings neatly preceded publication this week of the Bett report on higher education pay and conditions. The report is coy about the sums required to carry through the restructuring it recommends. However, its estimate of higher education's income and expenditure as approaching Pounds 12 billion and the calculation that its recommendations would add 6 per cent to the sector's total costs, suggest the total bill could be something over Pounds 700 million a year. Not surprising, then, that the government is looking for someone to help taxpayers, students and the

middle-class, floating voting families to foot the bill.

There is a good case for developing British higher education as an international business. But doing it well has costs. More care (and honesty) is needed in matching students to courses and more of the money they bring in should be invested in supporting them with, for example, pre-enrolment language and orientation courses (Letters, page 17).

Furthermore, the education offered for the high prices charged must be of high quality. If the modest and eminently justifiable recommendations of the Bett report are not implemented, the quality of our higher education, as the report warns, can only be expected to decline. This is no basis for effective competition with, for example, hugely better resourced institutions in North America.

For too many years now overseas students and higher education staff have been exploited in order to deliver underfunded expansion in British higher education. That the Bett report found no evidence of reduced quality is a remarkable tribute to the people working in higher education. Unfortunately universities and colleges are not in a strong bargaining position. They could, at one time, have threatened to charge - and actually done so - home and European students if the government refused to ante up. But the government has now curtailed that power.

This means that government attempts to dump responsibility for responding to Bett on employers and unions will not wash. The price for assuming so much control is responsibility. Higher education may be able to increase revenue at the margin by, for example, recruiting more overseas students, but it will only be at the margin.

Higher education must now argue its case. It will not be easy. As Bett says, more money is needed anyway just to keep the promise of limiting per capita cuts to 1 per cent a year, since plans for further expansion through enrolling more non-traditional students will put up costs and the Treasury assumption of pay increases in line with inflation is obviously unrealistic: staff are already in dispute over this year's 3.5 per cent offer.

It now rests squarely with the Treasury to decide whether to risk squeezing higher education further or do the decent thing and pay up. They may be tempted to suppose that the developments and adaptations expected of higher education can be produced by increased monitoring and regulation alone. That would be a mistake. Ducking responsibility for Bett's carefully researched and moderate recommendations will risk fatally alienating a constituency that has enthusiastically supported this government and hobbling British higher education in the world market just as that market is set to boom.

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