Treasury holds the key to door

June 9, 2000

I was glad to see, after all the lurid headlines over the Laura Spence case, that The THES (June 2) carried some robust good sense and proportion, including Geraint Davies's measured Why I... (Soapbox) about his experience as a comprehensive student at Oxford.

He rightly stressed the need for colleges there to be even more proactive - but emphasised a social mix, which was also my experience.

In all the Oxbridge sound and fury, we risk losing sight of two critical points - universal standards and funding. However fine Oxford and Cambridge are as institutions, our debate should not be conducted solely around their admissions procedures. This devalues and ignores all the students displaying excellence elsewhere - including those I taught for nearly 20 years at the Open University, now our largest source of graduates.

Access and adequate funding outside the Oxbridge loop are critical to achieving the government's ambitious targets for participation.

There is no point in getting access right if students are confronted by underfunded, overtired and bureaucracy-ridden lecturers. Barry Sheerman ("Lessons to be learned", Soapbox) rightly stressed the need to look at how to retain talented people as teachers in our universities. I hope our forthcoming higher education select committee inquiry will get to grips with that, as well as find the balance between valuing teaching and providing resources for it, greater collaboration between further and higher education and radical changes to the justly criticised research assessment exercise.

We need a thoughtful debate on how to lever in extra private funding. The vice-chancellor of Aberdeen University ("Free minds by cutting red tape", Opinion), in his excellent piece, pointed out the opportunities Gordon Brown gave in his budget changes to tax on charitable donations. These could give a boost to United States-style funding of higher education - and show that top-up fees are not the only answer.

But the government should take care not to give with one hand and be shot in the foot by the other. Your front-page report that Treasury civil servants are considering cutting unit funding for higher education is disturbing. Given his concerns about access and excellence, the chancellor should tell his mandarins to keep the money where his mouth has been.

Gordon Marsden. MP for Blackpool South. Chairman of the select committee on education.

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