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A catastrophe? Yes, and one made by Universities UK

Steve Smith today warned of a catastrophe facing universities. He asked in the Observer:

“is there not a danger that Lord Brownes review, by opening up the prospect of “solving” the funding problems of universities, might allow politicians to cut more deeply than might be undertaken otherwise, only to find that Lord Brownes recommendations are not palatable to all members of the coalition? In short, might the Treasury see in Lord Brownes review a reason for inflicting higher cuts on universities because there is a source of substitute funds? And, as a double whammy, might these substitute sources fail to materialise as Parliament proves unwilling to pass his recommendations? That would be a national catastrophe.”

Hes right about the impending catastrophe, but wrong about the politics. The catastrophe will be no mistake, as I argued in Research Fortnight in February:

“Universities have been singled out for torture because the Treasury does not want to waste this crisis. Academic squealing is supposed to batter the public psyche, softening up students and parents ahead of the debate on undergraduate fees later this year. We are going to be told there is no alternative to a hefty rise in fees and tougher conditions on student loans.

Sadly it is not just the government’s finances that are being squeezed. As the impact of the billions injected into the economy peters out, citizens are also going to feel poorer. Asking them to pay more to go to university is not going to be a popular message. Fees will rise, but it is unlikely to be by enough to restore university finances. The Daily Mail will make sure of that.

So universities face years of under-funding, an era of unrelenting grim.”

This analysis is of course now strengthened by the election result and the internal dynamics of the coalition. As I have explained, this now makes radically higher fees all but impossible.

To the unrelenting grim can be added two painful ironies. First, to a large extent, Smiths vice-chancellors are responsible for the catastrophe. In private, vice-chancellors argue for rapid rises in fees, usually for the nuclear option of completely removing the cap on fees. As set out by David Blanchflower in the New Statesman, this could rapidly lead to fees of £30,000 a year at leading universities. But in public, the vice-chanclelors have used weasal words. Addicted to establishment-era backdoor power deals, the vice-chancellors have refused to go to the public and make their case. The only way the Treasury can drive into the open the people who should be making the case for higher fees is to cut deep now.

Second, far from diverting the Treasury from this course of action, articles such as Smiths today actually encourage it to press on. As I continued in Research Fortnight:

“The response of vice-chancellors so far, complaining about the damage that cuts will do, is a failure. It does not just bounce off the politicians, it actually assists them in dumping higher fees on the public.”

Smith is worried about an impending catastrophe. But hes not nearly worried enough. The catastrophe is already here – and his fellow vice-chancellors are largely to blame.