Higher education awaits with trepidation the Chancellor's Budget Statement next week. We already know we face cuts in real terms of around 25 per cent over the next three years. Further reductions in both revenue and capital budgets are extensively forecast - or argued for - in much of the media.
The only educational issue that commands more media speculation than the Budget is the "information revolution". Its implications and the investment it requires, command acres of newsprint, hours of television and media time, and increasing megabytes of hard disk space.
The apparent contradiction between cuts on the one hand, and the need for significant investment on the other is typical of higher education. We all face a series of contradictions, the handling of which will determine our future.
At the core of the "information revolution" is a more profound problem. The focus is very much on information and access to it. But the primary purpose of higher education is not to provide access to information. Indeed easy electronic access to undifferentiated information can overwhelm and disable users as easily as it can liberate and enable them. Our concern should be with knowledge and learning, rather than information per se.
Apparently, it used to be like that. I have been re-reading Clark Kerr's seminal lecture series on "The Uses of the University", given in 1963. Kerr argued persuasively that the university's most significant product - knowledge - may become the most powerful element in our culture, impacting on the rise and fall of professions, and even of social classes, of regions and of nations. He argued that the production, distribution, and consumption of knowledge accounted for about 29 per cent of United States gross national product. It had also been calculated that knowledge production was growing at about twice the rate of the rest of the economy. Kerr concluded that the knowledge would serve as a focal point for national growth.
Kerr's lectures traced how the boundaries of the university would become increasingly stretched and embrace all of society. For Kerr, "the student becomes alumnus, and the alumnus continues as a student; the graduate enters the outside world, and the public enters the classroom or the laboratory".
With each new edition of his book, Kerr has moved from what he identifies as guarded optimism to guarded pessimism, but remains an unguarded utopian. He believes we can become nations of educated people and that institutions will find better ways of working with communities to generate and sustain the knowledge revolution.
How far is the shift in emphasis from knowledge to information a response to attempts to commercialise the information revolution? At a recent seminar, a senior director of a communications company insisted that the Internet was the equivalent of ham radio, and that only when commercial interests control a new superhighway will it move beyond its current status.
Universities must reaffirm their commitment to educate and liberate. This means educating in the round, not just for the market place. If intellectuals are indeed to be in the engine room of the knowledge society, they will increasingly be close to the levers of power. Will we promote and use our power to build a just and equal society, where the unprecedented prosperity unleashed by the technological revolution will be shared for the public benefit of all rather than the private benefit of a few? Or is that just unguarded utopianism?
Mike Fitzgerald is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.