You Don't Need a Degree to Know That Universities Are Hard Up; Analysis: Higher Education Funding ; the Argument over Top-Up Fees Is Raging in the Labour Party, but the Truth Is That Higher Education Has Been Underfunded for Years
Richard Garner Education Editor, The Independent (London, England)
THE QUESTION of whether universities should charge students top- up fees may be tearing at the Labour Party these days. But all sides in the argument agree that the university system is drastically underfunded and in need of a big cash injection as soon as possible.
Most of this problem has been caused by the drive by successive governments to increase participation in higher education. Labour set itself the famous target of getting 50 per cent of those aged 18 to 30 into some form of higher education by the end of the decade. The figure is just over 40 per cent and has been rising steadily since the Robbins report in the Sixties advocated the goal of a higher education system open to all with the ability to benefit from it.
But figures from Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, at the weekend show the rise in student numbers has not been matched by the rise in funding. The amount of funding per student fell by some 36 per cent during the 18 years of Conservative reign. Indeed, Mr Clarke also acknowledged that although Labour had ploughed an extra 15.6 per cent into higher education since it took office in 1997, the amount of funding per student had merely "stabilised".
The result of the boom in student numbers has had its impact on all aspects of university life. Universities UK, the umbrella group that represents vice-chancellors, says this has reduced their ability to offer high enough salaries to retain top-level research staff and avoid them joining a "brain drain", particularly to universities in the United States.
It has also led to a levelling down of university salaries so there are better prospects for many in teaching at primary and secondary schools. Lecture rooms have been crammed full of students so academics have far less time to spend on individual tuition, and the shortfall in capital investment is so acute that a pounds 5.3b investment is needed to bring facilities up to a modern enough standard to provide a satisfactory university education for the 21st century.
Mr Clarke said at the weekend: "Morale is thus lower than it needs to be. So there is a funding gap that needs filling. But the question is how and whatever solution we choose will raise difficult political issues."
This is why, for 13 months, Tony Blair and his Cabinet have been grappling with the question of financing universities and still failed to come up with a solution. The Prime Minister announced a review of student finance to the Labour Party conference last year, which has turned into a much broader strategy document on the future of higher education to be published in January.
Stephen Byers, the former cabinet minister who was the leader of the country's local education authorities before he became an MP in 1992, says: "Despite university funding increasing by more than pounds 1bn a year and a considerable increase in investment in research, there is a concern that we are falling behind universities in other countries, particularly in the US. Salaries are uncompetitive, especially for younger academics and those in highly competitive disciplines.
"At a time of globalisation we face a worldwide battle for talent. If we are to succeed we must have world-class university departments that can attract the leading players in their field, the Ronaldos and Beckhams of the academic world."
Despite the massive growth in student numbers, ministers are worried because they have been unable to attract many youngsters from deprived backgrounds to a university career.
Margaret Hodge, the minister for Higher Education, launched what has been widely interpreted as the Government's "softening-up" campaign for higher student fees at a conference organised by Universities UK last Friday. She said the gap between working-class representation at university level and middle-class representation had …
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Publication information: Article title: You Don't Need a Degree to Know That Universities Are Hard Up; Analysis: Higher Education Funding ; the Argument over Top-Up Fees Is Raging in the Labour Party, but the Truth Is That Higher Education Has Been Underfunded for Years. Contributors: Richard Garner Education Editor - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: November 19, 2002. Page number: 15. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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