But a meeting of more than 100 university heads will hear tomorrow that a major squeeze on jobs is inevitable if government spending cuts announced in the Budget go ahead.
The Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, announced last November that universities' funding should be reduced by 9.4 per cent over three years. Capital funding, for buildings and equipment, would be hit hardest and would suffer a swingeing 50 per cent reduction by 1999.
The vice-chancellors' immediate reactions were predictable and vociferous. The amount of cash they spent on each student had already fallen by a massive 28 per cent since 1989, they said, and they could take no more. As for ministers' assertions that their Private Finance Initiative would make up the shortfall by bringing in cash from industry, they were pure fiction. While the likes of Oxford and Cambridge might attract generous donations, less lofty institutions would not. In any case, they added, who would sponsor the test tubes and marker pens on which much capital funding was spent?
The vice-chancellors do seem to have a point. While student numbers were shooting up - from one in five of the age group a decade ago to almost one in three today - they could cope with ministers' "efficiency gains" because the new recruits brought in extra cash. But now, with a freeze on student numbers, they will start to feel the chill.
It is hard to say exactly what will happen to Britain's universities because their leaders, while vocal in the extreme on the general effects of the cuts, tend to clam up when asked for specifics. In a competitive market, no one can afford to admit that their standards might be about to drop. Even the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) has run up against the problem in its attempts to publicise its members' plights: one university held a senate meeting to discuss its response, and decided that silence was the best policy.
However, some universities are prepared to acknowledge that they, like everyone else, have a problem. For example, Leeds Metropolitan University has just completed a refurbishment programme on one of its two campuses, but work on the second might be jeopardised by the capital spending cuts.
Leslie Wagner, LMU vice-chancellor, believes the logical national outcome of the cuts is that with 10 per cent less money in the system there will be fewer staff in three or four years' time. Staff salaries make up more than 80 per cent of a university's budget, so the bill is bound to have to be cut back through early retirements and voluntary redundancies. "The arithmetic is clear. Unless we can find other sources of income, there will be less staff in the university sector in three years' time, " Mr Wagner says. Students may have to pay for items that were covered in the past: lecture notes, field trips, photocopying, he said.
David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, agrees with him. He puts the figure for staff reductions at between 6 and 10 per cent.
The result, he says, will be that students receive a poorer quality of teaching. Naturally, no university will admit this because of the "Ratner syndrome", he adds: "Once Ratner said what he thought about his products, his company fell through the floor."
But fewer lecturers would inevitably mean lower standards, he says. "I know people who say new technologies can replace teachers and that there will be a lot more self-directed learning. I don't think those people have done much teaching in recent years - even the Open University emphasises the importance of personal contact."
But while the universities' individual reactions to the cuts have been heard loud and clear, the presentation of a co-ordinated response could be more problematic. Each and every one has a slightly different perspective on the problem, and there is every chance that no clear programme of action will emerge from tomorrow's summit.
The CVCP executive, which consists of the vice-chancellors of Sheffield, Manchester, Middlesex, Southampton and Plymouth, has put forward two options. First, it wants members to consider imposing a pounds 300 levy on all new full- time undergraduates in 1997 if ministers do not back down before then. Second, it suggests that staff might be withdrawn from participation in outside work, which in effect would mean a boycott of the Government's teaching quality inspections.
Some will reject the first option on the grounds that it could discriminate against the most impoverished among an already cash-starved student body. Others will be uncomfortable with the second because it could lead to financial penalties being imposed by the government funding bodies which oversee the inspections.
Meanwhile, some vice-chancellors will argue for straightforward "top- up fees", which students would pay before starting each year of their courses. Each university would charge whatever it could get away with, so the most prestigious - and richest - institutions would benefit the most. Rumour has it that if neither the CVCP nor the Government can stem the effects of the cuts, some of the elite universities known as the Russell group might break ranks and introduce such charges. The majority of vice- chancellors, however, are opposed to opening up the higher education market in this way.
Tomorrow's meeting will bring agreement on one thing, though. The participants will almost all back a CVCP campaign to persuade ministers to introduce loans for university fees.
This suggestion has been gathering support for several years, and even the National Union of Students is looking at it with increasing interest. Based on a system already in place in Australia, this scheme would allow students to repay a portion of their fees once they had graduated and were earning the national average wage. In Australia, their repayments go into a trust fund which is obliged to feed them back into the higher education system (see article below).
Both main political parties in Britain have examined this system, though to date neither has taken the electorally risky step of giving it public support.
In Australia, there is widespread agreement that the Higher Education Contributions Scheme, introduced in 1989, has had a positive effect. Despite fears that it might put off students from poorer backgrounds, this does not seem to have happened.
But there is still controversy, of course, over the extent to which the universities themselves have benefited.
Simon Marginson, a senior lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at Melbourne University, believes the Australian government has been able to use the scheme to cut its own spending.
"It is really just a charge which reduces the total cost of higher education to the government. The money doesn't necessarily flow back to the institutions at all," he says.
UNIVERSITY OF 'MILLHAMPTON': How the cuts will bite
Funding per student: Millhampton's government grant, currently pounds 3,500 per student, will fall by pounds 96 to pounds 3,404 in the next year. The cut will mean a reduction of almost pounds 1m in the university's recurrent funding, to just over pounds 30m. Capital spending: Capital funding for new buildings, refurbishment and equipment will be cut by 30 per cent in the next year and by 50 per cent in the next three years. By 1999, the total will have fallen from pounds 4m to pounds 2m.
Students: 1,000 of Millhampton's 10,000 students are from overseas. The university will try to increase this by 1,250 in the next five years, and on its prestigious technological courses it may charge additional fees to foreign students. More part-time and mature students will be recruited to make up for a freeze on undergraduate numbers. There was a scare story in the student newspaper that top-up fees might be charged to some full-time home students, but this has been denied.
Student union: Will protest loudly about real-terms cuts in access funds, used to help those with financial problems.
Library and refectory: A planned major refurbishment programme for the library, which was built in the Thirties by a charitable foundation, will almost certainly be abandoned. The library's opening hours are likely to be cut, and it may no longer open on Sundays. Funds for buying books will be reduced and a number of journals will no longer be taken. Prices will rise in the refectory as university subsidies to catering are cut.
Planned research establishment: The running of this joint project with an American university may become a problem because Millhampton's contributions to both equipment and staffing will have to be cut.
Staff: Staff numbers - both academic and non-academic - will have to be cut by 10 per cent in the next three years. Salaries amount to 85 per cent of the university's expenditure. It is not yet known whether there will be redundancies or whether natural wastage, early retirement and the non-renewal of contracts will suffice.
Proposed new teaching accommodation: New lecture theatres and classrooms to cope with 4,000 extra students recruited in the past 15 years. These are now unlikely to be built.
Science park: Brings in vital revenue to the university by leasing units to hi-tech companies. Will become more vital than ever as the need to generate outside income increases sharply. Already, less than half the university's pounds 150m annual turnover comes from the state.
Student accommodation: Rents have already risen to pay for the building of new accommodation blocks, just completed. The university is reluctant to put them up again because it knows strident student protests will follow, but it may be forced to do so.
Millhampton Metropolitan University: "The Met" is in crisis. It will face cuts similar to those at the "old" university, but it is already beset by money troubles, having ended the last financial year with a deficit of almost pounds 2m. Consultants have been called in to sort out the mess, and there are rumours that several departments might have to close.
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