Why Tom and Lucy will have to pay

The high quality of British universities is threatened by growth. The extra money they need can only come from students Once acclaimed, the quality of British universities is threatened by growth. Somehow they have to be given more money
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JOHN CHARLES is in his second year at the University of Hertfordshire, studying computing and astronomy. Yet he has never had the chance to sit down with a course tutor to discuss his work; his course consists almost entirely of lectures and practicals, for which there can be up to 40 students in a group.

"You can't get to feel you are part of a team," he says. "You feel very distant from the lecturers."

John's experience is not unique. British universities have been transformed over the past decade and as student numbers have doubled to 1.6 million the system has come under enormous pressure. The university education that John is being offered in 1996 would be barely recognisable to those who went through the system in 1966 or even 1986.

In the past five years the amount of money spent on each student has fallen by more than a quarter: classes are larger, buildings are more crowded, housing and library books are in shorter supply. British universities are still far from the "degree factories" of the Continent, where classes of several hundred are common. But they have moved closer: a decade ago, there were fewer than 10 students to each lecturer. Now there are more than 14.

Last week, the Government, after years of bickering with the universities, at last acknowledged the crisis. Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, appointed Sir Ron Dearing (see panel) to head a national inquiry into the structure and funding of higher education. It will be the biggest official investigation into universities for more than 30 years.

John, like most students at Hertfordshire, must feel that Sir Ron's appointment is long overdue. A decade ago this was Hatfield Polytechnic, where around 6,000 students studied mainly engineering, science and computing. Since it became a university in 1992, courses in health, the arts and humanities have been growing fast and there are now 16,000 students. The traditional three terms have been replaced by two American-style semesters and courses have been split into modules, assessed along the way rather than through final-year exams.

The number of foreign students has more than trebled to just more than 900 in the past five years. The rise in overseas students, who pay up to pounds 6,000 a year to the university compared to up to pounds 1,600 paid on behalf of home students by local authorities, has caused enormous tension. Home students say that the foreigners get preference for scarce university accommodation, though the university strongly denies this. One British student said that, with recent cuts in grants and benefits, home students would soon be unable to study and universities would have to be filled with foreign undergraduates.

Political correctness has gone out of the window. The Afro-Caribbean society at Hertfordshire complained after a rag-week "slave auction" was held in the student union on the same night as one of their events.

Students say their contemporaries are too busy trying to survive to worry about the niceties of politics or race relations. They have to battle for books from the library, they say, and an inability to get the books is now considered a legitimate excuse for not handing in an essay on time. Housing is a headache. The living rooms of campus houses have been converted into bedrooms to create extra space but many students live in substandard private housing.

Bronwen Maxwell, a social work student who says her brother spent his first nights at Hertfordshire sleeping in a village hall, says many of the clients she visits on placements have better living conditions than she does in private accommodation. "It's hard to tell someone they need to raise their standards when you have got cockroaches and mice yourself," she says.

Students at some universities report that they have to work through the night if they want to get access to a computer. The few available terminals are often as busy at 3am as they are at 3pm. Some universities pack as many as 200 students into a lecture theatre, and even seminars - defined in the Oxford dictionary as small groups - can stretch to 60.

Students have to buy more of their own books and materials, even though their grants have been reduced. One college estimates that five weeks of school-teaching practice costs the student an average of pounds 100 in paper and photocopying for hand-outs. Art and design students can be asked to spend far more than that on paints and materials.

It is not only the students who are complaining. The days when lecturers could spend most of their week on research - or just simple scholarly contemplation - are long gone. One tutor recently pointed out that with 40 students in a group, the marking of two sets of 3,000-word assignments - a task he had only a couple of nights to complete - meant reading almost a quarter of a million words. A survey by the Association of University Teachers last year found that academics, whose salaries relative to other professionals have declined steeply, are working a 53-hour week even in vacations.

HOW did the universities get into their present difficulties? The finger points at Kenneth Baker, Secretary of State for Education from 1986. Until he came on the scene, universities and government were broadly agreed on the amount of money needed to educate each student. This "unit of resource" - the phrase was used reverentially by vice-chancellors as though it were an article of faith - put a non-negotiable cost on any attempt to increase student numbers. Since the Treasury was always reluctant to release more money, Britain's student population rose only slowly. When Mr Baker took office, just one in eight young people went into higher education. We had, as he put it, "a high-cost education system with a low level of output".

Mr Baker turned everything upside down. Previously, universities had got most of their money in block grants from central government (channelled through a special committee in order to minimise political interference); student fees, paid by local authorities, had met only a tiny proportion of costs. Hence, there was no incentive for individual universities to attract more students. Mr Baker reduced the block grants and raised the fees. He thus introduced something close to a "voucher" system, in which money followed the students. Mr Baker calculated that greed, ambition and competition would persuade universities to enrol more students and to forget their precious "unit of resource".

He succeeded beyond his expectations. In 1989, he set a target of one in three young people entering higher education by 2000. Within three years, the target was already in sight. The Treasury, meantime, realised that Mr Baker had fooled it into signing what amounted to a blank cheque for the indefinite expansion of higher education. Though student fees were paid by local authorities, the bill was passed to central government. And, though each student was being educated more cheaply, there were so many more that the total bill was soaring to alarming levels. Fees were cut and cut again. In 1992, the Government decided to put a cap on expansion.

By then, British universities had already changed beyond recognition. The polytechnics (which were transformed into universities in the early 1990s) had always educated students cheaply; now, the old universities had gone down the same path. But the financial pressures got worse and worse. Larger classes and longer hours for lecturers were not enough. Universities looked for new sources of income, renting out campuses to summer schools and seeking sponsorship from industry and commerce. One Oxford University department was renamed Kellogg College after receiving a gift of pounds 4.7m. Almost a third of universities' income now comes from sources other than the taxpayer. But savings still had to be made. Vice- chancellors calculate that there is a building maintenance backlog of pounds 2.5bn. One university has some laboratories which are 50 years old and is spending only half the annual amount needed to update them. Zoology research at another university may have to cease because the animal houses are in danger of collapse.

Last November, the Government announced a budget cut of 9.4 per cent over three years with a 50 per cent reduction in capital and equipment spending by 1999. It was the last straw. The quality of British higher education, famous throughout the world, was threatened, vice-chancellors said. Unless the Government acted, they would find extra money by charging additional fees which students, or their parents, would have to pay. The time-honoured British principle of free higher education would then be at an end - and, as the vice-chancellors well understood, the political consequences for a government struggling to retain its middle-class support would be incalculable.

Enter Sir Ron Dearing. He has to confront the question that Mr Baker skilfully evaded. Who pays for the extra students - up by a million a year since 1986. The taxpayer? University staff, through working harder and accepting lower salaries? The students and their families?

Sir Ron will be forced to consider a fourth possibility: that the expansion should halt and even go into reverse. As one Whitehall source put it: "Should universities continue to expand or are we in danger of producing graduates to sweep the streets as happens on the Continent?"

Vice-chancellors think that the expansion should go on. Ted Nield, a spokesman for the vice-chancellors' committee, agrees that there are not enough "graduate jobs" in the traditional sense but that we need to rethink the way we employ graduates. "A lot of graduate disappointment about jobs is due to their being employed at a lower level than they expect," he said.

Students, however, are already worried that their degrees are being devalued by expansion, and say that their university education will open no more doors than a couple of A-levels would have done 10 years ago.

Brian Gough, general secretary of the student union at the University of Northumbria, says: "School leavers now feel they have to go to university. Before, you couldn't leave without an O-level, now you can't leave without a degree. Everyone's got one, so you've got to have one."

His sentiments are echoed by students and recent graduates all over the country. Everyone knows someone who is working in a menial job simply to make ends meet: at one university college, the student union claims that only four of last year's 130 graduates have "sensible" jobs while most have gone on to further study or the dole.

At Hertfordshire, Bronwen Maxwell changed from a social science degree to a social work course because she felt it offered better job prospects. "I know lots of graduates who are working in shops and most of them did social science. They do voluntary work in their spare time to get the experience they need to do the things they want," she says.

Some experts question whether there is a demand for an ever-rising number of university places. Peter Scott, professor of education at Leeds University, says: "It isn't as true as it used to be that everybody wants to be a graduate. There is some evidence that the demand is slackening off. People are getting the message that higher education won't necessarily get them a good job."

And that, perhaps, provides a clue as to how Sir Ron could resolve the conundrum. If students had to contribute to the cost of their courses, decisions about the size of the university system could be left to them. Governments would no longer have to worry about how many 18-year-olds should have the opportunity of higher education, nor about which subjects should be supported. Some commentators think this would be a healthy development. The point of taking a degree, says Alan Smithers, professor of education at Manchester University, is to pursue a subject in depth, not to provide a qualification for a job. "The question of how many Egyptologists we need is not a sensible one. If students are funding part of it, it doesn't matter."

But would fees deter too many prospective students, particularly those from poorer homes? Not, argue their advocates, if students could take out cheap loans repayable after graduation. The grant for student living costs, they point out, is already being phased out in favour of a loan, but this has not stopped nearly a third of 18-year-olds going to university. The pro-fees lobby recommends the Australian system, whereby repayment of fees is integrated with the tax system so that graduates do not pay until they are earning the national average wage.

Most vice-chancellors and a growing number of academics now accept that fees are inevitable. So do most frontbench politicians. But they would hate to say so publicly: both parties are eagerly pursuing middle-class and aspirant working-class votes and Labour has the added difficulty of its historical commitment to the principle of free education. Indeed, the party went into the 1992 election campaign pledged to abolish loans even for maintenance and go back to grants. A year later, Jeff Rooker, then higher education spokesman, proposed that Labour should accept the repayment principle but adopt a better system than the Tories'. His paper was shelved by the late John Smith and Mr Rooker moved to the backbenches.

That is why calling in Sir Ron last week, and so kicking the issue into the post-election long grass, suited both parties. As one Labour MP put it: "The Dearing Commission is a masterstroke. Everybody knows that the only way to cater for higher education is to plough much more money into it. Everybody also knows that we do not have it."