Over the last few years universities have delivered what the Government asked for - a substantial move to a high-quality, mass higher education system. We have continued to providea high-quality service with less and less money available for each student - down 28 per cent since 1989.
However, we have now reached the limit for further "efficiency gains". The pressures on staff have been enormous, and with no reward.
Yet we are faced with further cuts which will have a serious effect on our ability to maintain the quality of teaching that students expect, and on our ability to retain the high-calibre staff who deliver this service.
It is neither in the country's interest nor that of the universities to damage the quality of our service. Not only is it vital that we continue to produce world-class graduates, but it is also important that UK universities continue to attract students from around the world.
There is a solution to this dilemma of maintaining quality in the light of increasing pressures on public funding. It is one that vice-chancellors have been pressing on all political parties for the past two or three years. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has proposed a new system of loans that would enable graduates to pay back part of the costs of their education, according to the income they earn after they have leave university.
Not only would this help to relieve pressure on public funding, but it would also provide a support scheme for part-time students and others who already pay their own tuition fees.
This idea is already operating in other countries, notably Australia, where it has not limited either the number of university applicants or the range of people applying to take a university course. What is frustrating for vice-chancellors is that none of the principal political parties seems to have the courage to explore the idea.
Until this nettle is grasped,we have no option but to consider how we can decrease costs or increase income.
At our meeting on Friday, my executive committee and I will be proposing two measures with great reluctance.
The first is to increase income by introducing a special registration levy on new students as they enter university. We are not proposing that the levy be introduced until 1997. The size of the levy would be determined by the size of the government cuts for that year.
We would prefer to continue to offer courses to full-time students at no cost to themselves. If a contribution is to be made, we would prefer a proper loan scheme enabling graduates to repay their contribution according to their ability to pay.
This suggested levy is in no sense a substitute for a proper funding scheme. Indeed, if we could see measurable progress to a longer-term solution, we would rescind the levy immediately. However, we have to balance our budgets like any other organisation.
The levy would not apply to part-time students and others who already pay their fees, and we would use part of the income to bolster support access arrangements for poorer students.
Our second proposal is designed to reduce the cost to institutions of the current duplicate quality assurance schemes - one operated by the funding councils and the other by our own agency, the Higher Education Quality Council.
We are working closely with these bodies to design a new scheme, at the Government's instigation, to eliminate duplication of resources. Meanwhile,we just cannot afford to continue to lose from teaching duties the 15,000 person days supplied to these schemes. We will continue to work with others in developing a new, UK-wide single system of quality assurance.
It is for each of our members' institutions to consider how to respond to the planned cuts. Only in December will we take a final decision on implementing these proposals, and that will depend on the response from the politicians.
However, we believe that only by making these proposals can we best demonstrate to students, employers, and parents and relatives, as well as politicians themselves, that the potential damage to quality from the cuts planned for the next few years is real, foolish and shortsighted.
The writer is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield and chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.
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