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Playing for time while waiting for your hole to evaporate

If and when the black hole in the governments higher education budget triggered by high tuition fees emerges, how will the government deal with it?

The Public Accounts Committee of MPs this morning takes us back to the suggestion I made seven months ago – cut student numbers. But in the short term there is another option, and it is the one universities are telling me they have been warned of by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills – take back some of the money universities have already been promised.

The government will still be making payments to universities for undergraduate students admitted this year for another three years. So if there is a black hole next year, it can simply cut the funding universities had been expecting for past cohorts of students.

Nasty, brutish and short-term, this wheeze will only get BIS out of its hole for a couple of years before the new system catches up with it. But by then, ministers may hope that the black hole in their budget has evaporated thanks to the magic of quantum gravity – or market competition.