United by a sense of outrage

December 15, 1995

The severity of the Chancellor's budget for higher education calls for a dramatic - but carefully planned - response. The sense of outrage expressed by speakers at last week's Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals meeting was all the more remarkable because it united all the universities, old and new, large and small.

No sector of the public service has delivered more "productivity gains" than the universities: by the Government's own reckoning this amounts to approaching 40 per cent over eight years in real terms. This has been achieved at the cost of staff and students in terms of personal financial hardship, deteriorating working conditions and excessive work loads - not, as it would have been in other sectors, ameliorated with investment in new equipment and new technology. On the contrary, capital investment has been pitiful and is now virtually to disappear; and it is hard to find anyone, even within Government, who argues with any conviction at all that the private finance initiative will plug the gap.

If independent proof were needed of the close correlation between resources and quality it has conveniently been provided in the funding council's recent report on the outcomes of the first two rounds of quality assessment. In the latest round, excellent ratings were won by four out of five departments in institutions which fell into the top quintile of funding; while only one out of ten departments in the lowest quintile were given excellent ratings. Evidence is beginning to accumulate of rising drop-out rates caused by a combination of personal financial hardship and the lack of learning and tutorial support institutions are able to offer their students.

What is to be done? It is manifestly clear that the Government is impervious to all but the most effective political action. In the last two years the CVCP has offered well argued papers advocating ways in which the funding gap can be closed without adding to the burden of taxation, but these have fallen on deaf ears. Now the patience of vice chancellors has worn so thin that growing numbers are rallying round the previously lonely voices calling for universities to exercise their discretion to charge supplementary fees for full time home students. Others wish to see a co-ordinated restriction on enrolments so that the reduced funding is at least spread across fewer students, even though this would damage access and prevent the Government's targets from being met.

None of these attempts to make the Government respond are likely to be successful unless they are accompanied by the most determined and professional political campaign. It will have to be a campaign that unites students and their parents, staff and members of councils and governing bodies, and draw on the most experienced and sophisticated sources of political advice. It will have to persuade ministers and their supporters in Parliament that they cannot continue to ignore the funding crisis, or that if they do, they will endanger their already wavering support among the predominantly Conservative voting groups who have traditionally benefited from higher education.

Clive Booth Vice chancellor, Oxford Brookes University

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