In the second of our series of articles about universities in the 21st century, Gordon Marsden argues that top-up fees are not the only option if we want to sustain the expansion of higher education.
The universe, some scientists tell us, is steadily expanding, but as it does so its mass gets thinner and its light dimmer. Is higher education in the United Kingdom going the same way? What do we have to do to prevent it ending up by 2010 with its very own black hole of aspirations and life chances?
The system has had to cope with massive expansion with little planning and, until recently, no prospect of increased funding - in fact, just the reverse. That it has done so without collapsing, without a string of bankrupt universities, spiralling dropout rates or mass departmental vacancies, is some sort of tribute to British virtues of improvisation, pragmatism or sheer muddling through. We would be unwise to rely on them forever. Higher education is rapidly mutating into shapes that require flexible and novel responses. The growth in student numbers has not just given us more of the same, but a whole different range of expectations, age ranges, modes of delivery and benchmarking than that appropriate to the traditional three-year intake of 18 to 21-year-olds.
That will fuel rapid changes in qualification and curriculum development - the new foundation degrees, the new vocational A levels and AS levels and the expansion of the international baccalaureate. The debates about access to so-called "top universities", which has acquired added potency in the wake of the Laura Spence affair, combined with concerns about how they are to compete in the globalised 21st-century higher education world, are real and significant.
But the images evoked have sometimes been curiously backward-looking - as if it was still all about How Green Was My Valley and Maureen O'Hara battling to get her coalminer pupil into Oxford. It is not - and that is why many in the newer universities have felt frustrated about much of the populist debate. Higher education by 2010 will have to cope with a seething mass of people with broader aspirations, lifelong learning and skills needs than ever.
Access is not just about getting over a rite-of-passage hurdle into higher education. It is about ensuring you can take it with you as life circumstances necessitate changes of plan and gap years. That complements the Sutton Trust and government summer school initiatives - to get more pupils from the state sector, lower socioeconomic groups and ethnic minorities into higher education at the age of 18 and beyond.
The chancellor's innovative educational maintenance allowances need to be linked to raising participation in those parts of the country identified by research from Sutton Trust, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and others as "cold spot" areas where the levels of university applications are abysmally low or where there is no higher education presence.
One solution would be a series of tertiary education action zones in these areas, where all sorts of curriculum initiatives, shared online projects, cooperation between further education and schools and fiscal links could be experimented with. The best results from these pilots could be rolled out.
The quality and spread of courses rather than the particular institution and its physical siting will become more important. The introduction of student fees will accentuate this, rather than leaving satisfaction to be measured by dreaming spires - or the lack of. Increased specialisation between different institutions, or clusters of them, rather than a "one size fits all" competition mean localised service agreements will be increasingly important. Already universities are cooperating informally in regional clusters - it makes no sense in the new world of joined-up post-16 provision for them to be excluded from strategy and delivery.
The biggest challenge is where the money is to come from. July's spending review announcements and projections for higher education are welcome, not least because after nearly 20 years they challenge the assumption that you can keep squeezing unit funding and begin to target extra access funding while ring-fencing areas of funding weakness, such as science and engineering.
There is no magic funding solution to maintaining excellence and expanded participation. That is why the Greenaway report threatens to be a massive distraction from the real challenge of doing practical things now, its solution of free-market top-up fees founded on erroneous comparisons with the very different climate of the US. The principle of public funding is one that will be politically more not less acceptable as participation increases. The increasing evidence that higher education brings not just individual economic benefits but real social good and community participation to those who experience it will appeal to governments desperately concerned about social inclusion, community and citizenship. Nevertheless, we will need to lever in substantial non-state funding by 2010. How?
One route has begun to be opened up by the chancellor. In his budget this year, he gave incentives to boost charitable donations - fleshing out the Getting Britain Giving campaign announced last November - that offer a potential path for UK universities to benefit from private funding in the way that American ones do. Alumni giving in the US is big business - Harvard's latest alumni fundraising campaign raised $2.6 billion. But in the US, payroll contributions and corporate donations to charitable trusts are a lot easier. The chancellor's willingness to extend tax relief for gifts of shares to charities and to allow non-resident individuals and companies to make gift aid donations could be widened to trusts where proceeds could flow to charity benefiting higher education.
The Treasury never gives something for nothing - nor does public opinion. Peter Lampl made the point that much Stateside fundraising is geared towards access or specific course recruitment, not new buildings or libraries - and attracts bigger bucks as a result. What about a higher/further education challenge fund - tax-exempt donations to encourage more non-traditional entry students into your old college or university? Corporate tax relief might improve public perception: donations for access funding for law students from non-Oxbridge backgrounds might do wonders for the image of some of the big London law firms.
Finally, what about the possibility of higher education charitable trusts issuing bonds that alumni and others could buy into with a decent rate of return? All this would take us a long way towards matching the Pounds 1 billion a year that Greenaway suggests would be needed to maintain excellence amid expanded participation.
The "there is no alternative" argument for top-up fees is not a response when the alternative is pluralised and imaginative thinking, backed by a creative Treasury. The Four Counties Group of institutions that has been looking at barriers to participation found a substantial proportion of those 16 to 18-year-olds in application cold spots for universities put off not just by fear of fees but by a feeling that higher education was not for them, and by a desire for the "easy money" that a post-16 job in a favourable economic hinterland could net them.
Educational maintenance allowances will help to challenge these assumptions but will not address them completely. That is why higher education's mission in 2010 will still have at its heart cultivating the passion for self-improvement and the "good life" and not just the economic benefits that vocational degrees or courses may bring. It also involves challenging the dumbing-down, more materialistic elements of mass culture. But that - as they say - is another, if a very Fabian, ball game.
Gordon Marsden, MP for Blackpool South and vice-chair of the Fabian Society, writes in a personal capacity. He is a member of the current select committee inquiry into higher education.