University 'premier league' for funding

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The Independent Online
A two-tier system of universities, with a premier league of ancient institutions receiving priority funding at the expenses of second division former polytechnics, is being planned by government advisers.

A paper to be published next month by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) will suggest that universities which offer the best teaching could be given priority in the race for expansion. Regional needs and the demand for places will also be taken into account.

The move will cause fury in the former polytechnics, where rapid expansion has led to complaints about crowded lecture theatres, overstretched library facilities and overworked tutors who cannot find time for their students' problems.

Inspections of teaching quality have led to six out of 10 departments in old universities being rated as "excellent", compared with just a quarter of those in new universities. The new universities say this is because the process discriminates against them.

Among the universities which would benefit under a two-tier system would be Oxford, Cambridge, York, Imperial College, London and Warwick. Losers could include the "new" universities of Derby, Greenwich and Bournemouth.

Ministers have already moved to produce league tables for teacher training. The funding council's move would make it easier to develop similar plans foruniversities.

The changes would also mean much closer scrutiny of the quality of universities, with ministers having more control over degree standards. An inquiry into this question is due to report later in the year.

The new universities have reacted angrily to the proposals, with some accusing ministers of trying to nationalise the traditionally independent higher education system.

Brian Roper, vice-chancellor of the University of North London, said the proposals would open a gulf in the higher education system and would be bound to lead to the production of league tables.

"It is ironic that after a lengthy campaign to tear down the line which divided the older universities from the polytechnics, we now find that some factions intend to rebuild the Berlin Wall," he said.

A spokesman for the HEFCE denied that it would put the new universities at a disadvantage. "The principle is that institutions will be invited to bid for additional numbers, and these will be distributed on the basis of quality, demand and regional need. They will go to institutions where they have a good record," he said.

The expansion which took place between 1989 and 1995, in which student numbers rose from 760,000 to 1.2 million, was based on student demand and on which courses were the cheapest. In future, the universities will have to prove that they can offer a high-quality education as well.

They will be given four months to express their views before the council takes a final decision in November. They would be partly implemented next year and would be fully in place by the autumn of 1998.

Although university recruitment has been frozen for the past two years because of funding constraints, the council assumes that there will be extra places before the end of the century. Numbers of pupils in secondary schools are going up, so universities will need to expand in order to keep the proportion going on to university at its current level of one third.