A special levy would focus minds on how desperately underfunded HE really is, says Gareth Roberts.
Over the past few years, universities have argued with the Government that continuing reductions in resources available to teach students would eventually damage the quality of our service. The Government appears not to have listened, for we have seen the unit of funding decline by over 25 per cent.
The Prime Minister suggests that total funding has increased, but so have student numbers and by much, much more. Within the next three years, if nothing is done, we will be receiving one third less per student than we did in 1989. That is why we, our staff and our students are complaining.
We have urged all political parties to commit themselves to introduce a new system of funding so that all graduates are supported by a fair loan system to repay a contribution to their maintenance and fees. Yet they too appear not to have listened for, despite almost all other key organisations in higher education pressing for a similar scheme, no political party has signed up.
With huge achievements in productivity from our staff, we have seen students managing to maintain and even increase their successes in examinations as well as in the market place, where graduate unemployment has decreased from 11 per cent to 8 per cent in the last couple of years.
All that is now at risk. With a promised cut in capital support in England of over 40 per cent as part a proposed reduction of around 9 per cent in total resources over the next three years, the high-quality British higher education system is threatened as never before.
The action we are proposing is no panic measure. It results from the frustration of offering a constructive solution to the challenge of funding that faces us all - politicians and universities alike, but only hearing the response "more cuts". We have taken the route of solid argument and intellectual debate with politicians to no avail. We could continue to argue and urge; indeed we will, with even more force.
What we cannot do is stand by and watch the gradual decline of the high-quality system that we have painstakingly built up in this country, with access now to at least a third of the population. If we do nothing there is no doubt that quality will suffer. Members have already warned us about the effect on individual attention and pastoral care, on support for field work and study abroad, the effect of a 30 per cent reduction in books per student, on staff threatening to leave because of unmanageable workloads, on frozen posts which will be left vacant for financial reasons.
We have heard about delays in modernising engineering programmes, about 50-year-old laboratories that will not now be renewed, about modernisation of library and IT facilities that will now be cut, about losing the cutting edge in the crucial new areas of virtual reality and multimedia.
Planned budget reductions will make it impossible to guarantee that universities can sustain access for their students to the most up-to-date resources and acquire the application skills that industry and the professions expect in graduates.
The Government's answer is the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). Yet estimates show as little as 10 per cent of planned capital and equipment projects could conceivably attract PFI interest. Moreover, the cutbacks that universities are planning as a result of the Budget announcement will, in themselves, reduce attractiveness to possible PFI partners of investment in universities.
Neither the vice chancellors, nor their staff, nor especially our students would be happy with second-class tuition. Our main objective is a new system that will deliver the resources to maintain quality by enabling graduates to repay a contribution to their maintenance and fees.
Unless we can see some measurable progress from the politicians towards such a system we are forced to find other sources of income. We are doing this to bring forcefully to public attention the consequences of not introducing such a system. That is why we are proposing a special levy - to show in graphic terms the consequences of further underfunding. If you like, we are proposing a "deficiency levy". It is a direct result of the deficiency of the Government and other politicians in addressing the needs of a high-quality mass system.
There are many, of course, who already contribute to the costs of their tuition - part-time, international, and graduate students, and others. For them there is already little, or no, support. The levy would not apply to them. There would also be arrangements to ensure that the levy does not hit poorer students.
Another alternative, which some voices support, is to introduce a system of "top-up fees" that would vary from institution to institution. This is not the road which I and most of my fellow vice chancellors wish to take. It would re-introduce a division between universities, between those that charge high fees and those that charge none.
The proposed levy is by no means an easy solution. It is with the greatest reluctance that we propose it. We do fear for its effect on potential students. We hope that those students and their parents and relatives will use the next few months to remind our politicians that there is another way; that there is an income-contingent loan scheme, which has almost universal backing, and which would eliminate the need for this special levy.
We face a great challenge. The Government is under pressure to limit public funding. No party wishes to be the first to propose graduate contributions. It is for vice chancellors, but also for our staff, students and parents and governing bodies, to take these arguments to the politicians.
Gareth Roberts is vice chancellor of the University of Sheffield and chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals.