Education: Personally speaking

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It's day two of the new Labour government. The Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, has to move fast to come up with money for Labour's ambitious schemes to provide jobs and training for the young unemployed and to cut school class sizes.

He turns to the Permanent Secretary, Michael Bichard, who puts in front of his minister a Treasury memorandum drafted while the new Chancellor, Gordon Brown, was still in Opposition. "Each spending minister will be expected to undertake a full-scale review of their department's spending programme and justify each item in the light of clear objectives," and they will have to do this before they have a cat in hell's chance of extracting any extra from the central kitty.

And which item of Department for Education and Employment spending is likely to come top of Mr Bichard's squeeze list? It's a pound to a penny that further savings will be expected from higher education. From the higher education budget, this is, that was set by the Conservative Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, last November and which Gordon Brown has promised to stick with.

Brownism, if that is not an unfair coinage for the hair-shirt approach agreed by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, spells the end to any hopes the universities have had about more money. The Brown approach must have the following consequences for the universities:

the "unit of resource" - the amount of cash available to spend on each student's library books and teaching - will continue to decline;

additional students will have to be paid for out of the existing higher education budget, implying even less available per head;

the report from Sir Ron Dearing's committee, on which so much has been staked by vice-chancellors, student leaders and academics, will - whatever it actually says - be used by the Government as no more than a set of suggestions for alternative sources of finance for higher education. In practical terms, all Dearing can recommend is forcing students and their parents to pay more.

It is no good the Association of University Teachers protesting, as its council did the other day, about the consequences of Brownism for professors' pay. The AUT wants an independent pay review body for academics: fine, but the only source for any extra pay will have to be outside the public sector.

Even then, as Ted Nield of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors acknowledges, the universities are facing three- to five years' hard labour. Even if the Dearing committee were to recommend a radical programme for student loans, it could take several years before a new scheme had any impact on the money available for tuition or student maintenance.

"Mr Brown's speech confirms the need to bring in alternative sources of funding," says Nield. The CVCP would like to see the existing student grant scrapped and all students made eligible for an enhanced loan which might be extended to cover at least a portion of the cost of their teaching. It seems to be on the same wavelength as the businesspeople's commission convened by the Institute of Public Policy, which reported last week. Its report, Promoting Prosperity, A Business Agenda for Britain, said firmly that schools should get priority and that pounds 2bn could be made available if student maintenance grants were converted entirely to loans.

Till now, David Blunkett has opposed the extension of loans and ruled out "top-up fees". How long before he bows to the logic of the Iron Chancellor?