This week's spending review may at last mark a turning point. Many in the universities who helped vote Tony Blair in three years ago, and who have since wondered why, will certainly hope so. Expectations in the sector have been so effectively lowered that what should (when projected student numbers are available) turn out to be a tiny per capita increase, seems a real victory. But all is still to play for. For higher education, unlike other areas, there are figures for one year only. Half the extra Pounds 100 million for 2001-02 is to be earmarked for pay for top talent (though it is not clear how). There will be too little left to remedy the gender inequalities revealed by the Bett report. Fear of a brain drain, potential embarrassment at having a starveling at this year's feast and belief in the importance of higher education to economic health has persuaded the chancellor to end the long years of cuts. Now growth is needed.
The target of getting "a majority" of the nation's 18 to 30-year-olds to college by 2010 is a complex one. Though the number in the target cohort will fall in the next five years making the 50 per cent target more attainable, it will rise again after that. Furthermore, the extra students are likely to have more varied needs and aspirations. Staff, more buildings and more support systems - from libraries to welfare services and accommodation - will be needed.
Very welcome new cash for research also raises important challenges. There will be big increases in real terms for the research councils. The biggest priority, more cash for research salaries, has been addressed. But researchers outside the charmed circle of genetics and biomedicine - plus some other winners, such as nanotechnology, that the government has picked for expansion - may not see the benefit. Nor may there be much comfort for scientists and other academics whose work does not promise obvious economic benefit.
On present rules, research money flows disproportionately to a small handful of universities. (There is nothing unelitist about the chancellor when it comes to research funding: Cambridge's money for collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology forms part of the new research totals announced this week.) Extreme selectivity was born of too scarce resources. It would not be right to continue in times of relative plenty policies designed to save at least something in times of stringency. With a more generous spirit abroad, there should be some reorientation of research assessment criteria. The rewards and incentives available to those who feed their more practical research directly to their regional and local economy and into their teaching should be reviewed. This should in part be tackled in the imminent science white paper.
But there is another aspect of research funding regimes that is underlined by people whose main interest may seem to lie more with teaching. The divergence between teaching and research is becoming damaging. On page 34, Lewis Elton has wise words on the interrelation between teaching, scholarship and research in a mass higher education system that aims to offer a high-quality higher education to half the population. On page 5, we report the view of David Watson, Brighton's vice-chancellor and a Dearing committee member, that reviving innovation in higher education and broadening the types of excellence it fosters is overdue.
If the long winter is indeed over, a start can be made on redressing distortions created by decades of cuts. Of these, pay is the most urgent, but diversity, open access and closer gearing to local economies come close behind.