Standards can only be raised if more cash is found to pay academics a decent wage, argues Claus Moser
The issue of standards always hovers over us. Expansion remains the Government's top priority and indeed, I believe that its target of 50 per cent participation will soon be passed.
But, of course, it all depends on what awaits the student once inside the university.
Is it inevitable that moving from elite to mass higher education necessarily means lower standards?
In one sense, yes, the average ability of entrants is likely to have dropped in this massive increase in numbers. But there is more to university standards than the quality of students.
Most important is the state of the academic staff. Here there is much to worry about.
First, the numbers: due to the dramatic decline in the unit of resource in the 1980s and early 1990s, the staff-to-student ratio has sunk from 1:9 to 1:18, and in some departments is at 1:30.
This signifies much more pressure on academics, less time for reflection, scholarly work and links with those they teach, fewer small classes and more big lectures.
It is not hard to see in this not only a less fulfilling experience for staff and for students but also a likely decline in standards.
Furthermore, it would be surprising if the quality of academic staff had not fallen, given the disgraceful state of remuneration.
Academic salaries have risen in real terms by 5 per cent in the past 20 years, compared with 45 per cent in average earnings.
Lecturers are paid a pittance by today's standards, only improved marginally after recent negotiations.
Overall, morale is poor and there are signs of a growing brain drain. I have no doubt that the salary issue is the most serious problem in today's universities, demanding an urgent solution and change of attitude.
Governments have been cramming ever more students into the system without providing the money.
So, in total, over the past 15 years, student numbers have doubled, and spending per student has halved.
Current investment is judged to be well below what is needed to finance the necessary quality of provision for students.
So where is one to look? The possible sources are few and obvious, and include the decision on top-up fees. Personally, I had no hesitation in going down that route.
But it has to be recognised that the present cap of £3,000 will cover only a small percentage of the funding gap. To cover future needs of the sector, it seems to me inevitable that the cap of £3,000 will be raised as soon as politically feasible.
The only other source that could make a substantial dent in the funding gap is general taxation. We spend 1.1 per cent of gross national product on higher education, compared with 2.2 per cent in the US.
It seems obvious that, if we want to make up on some of the underfunding of the past, some increase in that figure needs to be faced.
In general, I feel optimistic because we have a fine university tradition and have built up a large and diverse system poised to respond to its challenges.
Moreover, there is no shortage of enthusiasm and commitment among academics, nor of financial and management skills in university leadership.
But at the same time I can't help feeling pessimistic.
This is partly because I fear a continued underfunding of the universities against a background of growing expectation from them; and also because universities do not seem to have gained the support - from the public and from the Government - that they deserve.
In particular, I wonder whether the Treasury, on which so much depends, accepts how much is at stake if universities are allowed to decline.
In this context, I wish to stress how important it is for our universities' leaders to raise their voices more willingly than has come to be their way.
A warning is in order. It is not only a question of fighting for one's own university, or for universities in general, but to remind all of us constantly of the importance universities play in society.
It seems to me an inescapable fact that, unless we invest the increasing sums necessary to make up for much of the under-funding of the past and the desired needs for the future, our universities will become the British Rail of the future.
Lord Moser was warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and chancellor of Keele University. This article is abridged from a wide-ranging lecture "On the Future of Our Universities" he recently gave to the British Academy.