Paralysis has gripped the universities' campaign for more money as the vice-chancellors' leader, Sir Howard Newby, asked "what is the point?" Sir Howard, president of Universities UK and incoming head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said he saw no point in pressing for any specific proposals on the future funding of higher education because the government might ignore the campaign.
He was speaking after vice-chancellors decided, at a meeting in Newcastle last Friday, not to select and fight for any of the four main funding options proposed by Sir William Taylor in his report published a fortnight ago.
Sir Howard said: "There is a serious issue here, and it is what the point is of trying to choose one option when the government could disregard it. Think what happened after Dearing -the government chose its own options."
What vice-chancellors have called for is more work on the sector's funding needs. This would add to the weight of information already at their disposal in the Taylor report, the Bett report on academic salaries in 1999 and the Dearing report of 1997.
Vice-chancellors decided to leave the four key Taylor options on the table. They are now pinning their hopes on "high-level talks" to persuade the incoming government to increase funding. The Taylor report said the sector would need an extra £900 million a year by 2004 to meet the challenges set by government.
The sector's leaders want to influence the comprehensive spending review, which the government has planned for next year. Last year's review set departmental spending limits up to 2004. A 2002 review could augment the 2002-03 and 2003-04 settlements and provide higher education with more cash for 2004-05.
Sir Howard said: "The status quo is not an option. We now need a step change in funding to ensure that our students and the country are served well in the future. Our world-class system is otherwise in jeopardy.
"We are saying to the government: 'By all means let us have a dialogue, but challenge us on the figures in the Taylor report. If you agree with them, what are you going to do about it?'" Roderick Floud, provost of London Guildhall University and president-elect of UUK, said universities could claim some tactical success, including the government's decision to end year-on-year cuts and to invest significantly in science.
"The choice is a political decision," Professor Floud said. "We can set out the pros and cons, but the government and the two other major parties have taken positions on these issues."
The Dearing report recommended £1,000 tuition fees for all undergraduates and the retention of maintenance grants. On the day the report was published, the government announced that it would introduce means-tested fees and abolish grants. In 1999, the Bett report called for £714 million to raise academic salaries and resolve equal pay problems. From the start, the government distanced itself from the report. It has yet to meet the full Bett bill.
The Taylor report set out four main options: differential tuition fees, more public funding, university endowments (the Conservative Party proposal), and higher graduate contributions.
But the government has already acted to limit universities' room for manoeuvre. Three weeks ago, education secretary David Blunkett ruled out differential fees for the duration of the next parliament if Labour wins the general election. On top of this, higher education is still a relatively low priority for more public funding. And endowments are a Tory policy unlikely to be adopted by a Labour government.
Andrew Pakes, communications director of the Association of University Teachers, said: "UUK is in danger of becoming the boy who cried wolf. It is all well and good constantly telling us how hard-up the sector is, but it should be campaigning for a solution."
Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said:
"I still think the real issue of the moment is student debt, which is massive and rising. This is where political attention needs to be focused."
• Vice-chancellors are calling for a rethink of the use of postcodes as the mechanism for distributing funds to widen participation.
Universities UK is lobbying the major political parties about the Higher Education Funding Council for England's policy of allocating extra cash to those universities recruiting students from the poorest areas.
UUK also plans research on ways to refine the postcode mechanism, which it says is too crude a way to dispense cash.