Vice-chancellors sell out infantry

July 17, 1998

It would be churlish not to celebrate extra money for education. But it would be naive to take the headline figures at face value. The presentation is irritatingly slick. There is double counting and a lack of detail.

Nurseries and schools will gain, and rightly so. In further education per capita cuts will be eased and there will be substantial growth as New Dealers and, if pilot education maintenance allowances for 16 to 18-year-olds are successful, more school-leavers, enrol.

But for universities cuts continue. When research money, inflation and the extra 35,000 full-time equivalent extra students are taken into account, an apparent 5.7 per cent increase turns into at least a 1 per cent per capita cut. Furthermore, the extra Pounds 280 million announced by the government for next year, like the Pounds 165 million extra for this year, will mostly be paid by the students. This is not new government money and universities will still have less to spend on each student. Fees will profit them nothing.

That this is hailed as success by vice-chancellors shows how far their expectations have been lowered by the squeeze of the past two decades. They went into the spending review stating openly that their bottom line was a 1 per cent "efficiency gain". Who can be surprised that that is what they got? If the level of funding was insufficient before, it will be more insufficient now.

Vice-chancellors' reaction suggests they have sold the universities out. Perhaps they find the present settlement convenient, with its emphasis on capital spending and continued strictures about pay. Higher education certainly needs more capital. The private finance initiative has not produced the cash required and buildings and equipment are getting dangerously run down and out of date. There is much to be done and debts to be serviced with any extra cash.

But university staff need money too. Academics are now seriously underpaid. What this settlement, with its large and welcome injection of research funding, means is that splits in the academic profession between exploited casual staff and more secure permanent staff will open wider. And even among permanent staff divisions will grow.

High-flying professors who bring in research money will be able to negotiate themselves salaries which, if hardly stellar in business terms, will pay the mortgage comfortably. Meanwhile university managers will be able to tell the poor bloody infantry that, alas, the Treasury's enforcers prevent them upping pay for those who carry the main teaching load. Research-heavy universities will become increasingly differentiated.

Any hope of breaking out of present restraints via a pay review body is weakened severely by the Chancellor's new requirement that such bodies take affordability and inflation and efficiency targets into account. The Association of University Teachers and Natfhe, finally getting their act together, are going to have a tough time in the next couple of years keeping even reasonable levels of pay and terms of service.

And the battle may be worse than Tom Wilson (left) expects. The government's promise of a three-year horizon may prove illusory. If the economy falters and unemployment rises, pushing up the "failure" part of welfare spending (which the government's plans assume will fall), the Treasury may renege on its spending contracts with departments, even if they have hit their performance targets. When one department is judge, jury and paymaster such contracts may not prove robust.

There will be pleasure in the education world at this week's announcements. Here is a Labour government doing what Labour governments are expected to do: investing in public services. But universities' pleasure will be thin. Their share of the cake is dwindling.

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