Upping the ante, as things may not get better

November 10, 2000

Chancellor Gordon Brown's eagerly awaited pre-budget statement was unveiled on Wednesday, giving voters a first indication of how the Labour government plans to use its prudently accumulated war chest to help it secure another term in office. Unsurprisingly, it contained no word of comfort for higher education.

This is not necessarily bad news but it is certainly not good either. Education secretary David Blunkett has still to produce his spending figures for the two years after April 2002, that is for the period after the next general election. It may be that the vice-chancellors have made a sufficiently robust case, in their soon-to-be-published review of funding options, to persuade Blunkett that diverting cash from universities to other parts of the education budget before the election could land him in an embarrassing row about increasing fees at a politically sensitive time. But it is not obvious that they have gained anything better for the longer term.

Mr Brown is a cautious man wedded to prudence. The extraordinary cliffhanger across the Atlantic, where a healthy economy has failed to provide the Democrats with a comfortable return to office, will make him more careful still. Seeing their Democrat friends in trouble in the United States can only make Britain's government more sensitive to opinion polls and focus groups, more anxious not to alienate floating voters, and keener to go into the election promising pensioners, farmers, motorists, environmentalists and others better prospects than they could confidently expect from the Conservative opposition.

The Treasury is concentrating its extra money on noisy, organised groups with the power to swing large swaths of votes. Similarly, the education department will be using money already allocated to it to ensure claims that Labour has delivered manifesto pledges look convincing. The new Learning and Skills Council is to get a substantial dowry to help it make a success of education and training for the post-16 age group. More money will go direct to schools, a measure that should help limit any damage that the former chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, may inflict when he emerges from purdah next year.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the government is sufficiently frightened of higher education to feel the need to make it promises for the post-election period. Reluctance to produce figures reinforces suspicion that options are being kept open to raise fees - or allow them to be raised - after the election.

If that is the intention, and many now believe it is, ministers would not want to be committed to specific levels of public funding now that they might want to cut back later as extra revenue became available from private sources. The experience in the US suggests that while higher education is seen as politically important in a general way, something to which many should be encouraged to aspire, politicians of all parties are likely to prefer help for students and families to help for institutions.

Tax breaks encourage charitable giving, enterprise and even perhaps fee paying. Bursaries and access funds have wider voter appeal than better funding for institutions and better salaries for staff. Removing up-front fees on the lines of the Scottish model would play better with middle-class voters than providing money to rectify pay anomalies between men and women or for ethnic minority staff in higher education institutions.

In these circumstances, higher education's unions and pressure groups are right to seek to up the ante now while the government is sensitive to pressure, rather than wait in the hope of better things to come. Things just might not get better.

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