VICE CHANCELLORS have no fall-back plans if ministers fail to come up with more cash for higher education by the end of the year, it emerged this week.
In one of the last chances to influence funding decisions for next year, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals said there was no reason to suspect the Government would fail to meet its side of the Dearing bargain, in which students would pay fees, universities improve standards and Government increase cash.
A CVCP conference in London on funding issues raised by the Dearing inquiry found no alternative to this "wait and see policy", despite the crucial timing. General guidelines on departmental budgets for 1998-99 will be decided in the next two months.
Not a single delegate even uttered the phrase "top-up fees". Martin Harris, the new CVCP chairman, said: "We expect the new income stream generated by tuition fees to go back into higher education and we expect Government to address our short-term funding crisis." Both were Dearing recomendations. He said vice chancellors would have to await announcements of the Government's spending decisions in November before considering their position.
But while education ministers have recognised the "crisis" in higher education, there have been no Treasury guarantees of more money, in spite of students paying tuition fees from 1998.
Kim Howells, minister for lifelong learning, told the conference he was aware of pressure to announce a decision quickly, but it had to wait for the outcome of the departmental spending review.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said that while the full spending review would not be finished until next summer, decisions on spending would be announced this autumn, with the details set out by the spring budget.
Nick Barr, senior lecturer in economics at the London School of Economics, warned that charging students fees would bring in little extra money anyway, unless the Government changed accounting rules to exclude student loans from the public sector borrowing requirement.
Meredith Edwards, deputy vice chancellor at the University of Canberra, Australia, and a member of the committee which led to charging students fees in Australia, warned that the Australian government had raised the student contribution to fees when it found itself in general financial difficulty.
Bill Robinson, director of consultants London Economics, and Julian Schweitzer, director of human development at the World Bank, also urged the sector to take more account of market forces, which would involve introducing differential fees.
But John Bull, CVCP treasurer, said that all decisions would rest on ministerial announcements later this year. "If the Government doesn't make more money available for higher education then all institutions will review their systems," he said. "We await the public spending round with considerable interest and anxiety."
Michael Driscoll, vice chancellor of Middlesex University, said: "It isn't obvious that Government departments all see this issue as a priority."
He said the threat of charging top-up fees had already led to the Dearing inquiry. Vice chancellors feared they would receive little public support if they made the threat again.