The price of 21st-century success

December 24, 1999

The Cubie report on student finance in Scotland makes a fitting end to the century and the millennium. Cubie's recommendations, along with the vice-chancellors' recent bid for future funding, present the government with tough decisions about how universities and students are to be supported.

Cubie's recommendations are close to those of the Dearing and Garrick committees, with income-contingent payment by all graduates for tuition; means-tested loans; and bursaries for those hardest up. This should have been done two-and-a-half years ago. It should be done now.

The trouble is that although the reorganisation of tuition contributions is cheap, the recommendations on living costs are not. Even partial implementation would take up money for higher education just when extra is needed to keep the universities up to internationally competitive standards. But implementing the tuition recommendations alone would do nothing to improve the social inclusiveness of higher education.

Universities are one of the greatest achievements of the last millennium. As Sir Anthony Kenny says in our Millennium Magazine, the first recognisably modern ones are nearly 1,000 years old. Now their successors are at the heart of a new industrial revolution.

Research and advanced education are central to economic success and to personal advancement. Created by growing public investment in this century, today's universities generate knowledge and skills that underpin knowledge industries, providing huge banks of information, wide ladders for social mobility and career flexibility.

Demand for universities' services is out-running the tax revenues available to support them. Universities themselves will need to tap the growing flow of private money coming into research and advanced training to meet that demand if they are to maintain their central position and not to see their hegemony eroded by private competitors.

The job of politicians is to see that universities have the scope to do that; to see that all citizens, whatever their circumstances, have access to those universities; to ensure that the universities are worth going to; and to foster top-quality research. It is not to micro-manage universities.

Mr Cubie, recruited last summer to smooth over a political difficulty, has produced a report of admirable clarity (and has kept it firmly out of the hands of the spin doctors). His report tells the government what is needed to ensure open opportunity for students. The vice-chancellors have told them what is needed to make sure universities retain their quality.

Unless the government now squarely faces these issues, the prospects for Britain's universities are poor. There will be first-class universities in the next millennium. They are necessary to economic success. But there is no God-given reason why any of them should be in Britain. That depends on what the government does now.

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