It is not just the mayhem on the streets this week and last that makes it hard for me to feel very sorry for any of the parties to the university fees dispute. There is Nick Clegg and his cohorts who foolishly signed on the dotted line a contract they were pretty sure they would never have to honour – how imprudent could they be? There is this government and the last, both of which cheerfully delegated to a very rich man the job of defending a huge fee rise – on economic grounds, of course – to save ministers the embarrassment of having to do it themselves.
Then there are the student leaders whose perfect RP accents suggest, justifiably or not, that a rise in outgoings from £3,000 to £9,000 a year would probably not precipitate bankruptcy. And last, but by no means least, there are the vice-chancellors, many of whom who have quietly upped their salaries several times over in recent years, arguing – on the rare occasions they have been asked to do so – that they deserve chief executive-style rewards to match the chief-executive nature of their jobs, given the ballooning size of their institutions and the additional demands (laugh not) of fund-raising.
I tend to believe that, if only all these people would get together in the civilised collegiate surroundings that are their natural habitat, they could settle it all satisfactorily without the costs of stopping the traffic and the many hours of police overtime. But the senior common room is clearly not where this dispute is currently heading. With another day of protest planned for next week, ministers intent on scheduling a Commons vote before Christmas, and a quorum of university heads warning the Government against going soft, clearly no one is ready to back down yet. And with children as young as 13 now joining the demonstrations, maybe it is just too much fun playing at being French?
But there is a solution, and yesterday's shot across the bows from Professor Steve Smith, head of Universities UK – the corporatised name for what used to be the Committee of Vice-Chancellors – touched on it, though he obviously did not intend his words to be interpreted in this way. Floating the supposedly dire consequences if the Government were to cave in to the students, Professor Smith said the alternative to the fee rise would be "devastating" cuts in student numbers.
Now Professor Smith's view was that "cutting student numbers would do more harm to social mobility than an increased graduate contribution with a progressive repayment mechanism, and more maintenance support for students from low-income backgrounds". In other words, that the rise in tuition fees, rather than deterring students from poorer homes, would even things out – so long as there was adequate financial support. That is one way of looking at it.
But might his alternative not actually be more palatable – those supposedly "devastating" cuts in student numbers he mentioned? Over the past 15 years, higher education has been one of the fastest-growing sectors in Britain. It was a huge beneficiary of the economic boom. Not only student numbers have multiplied; university staffs – academic and administrative – have burgeoned, as have pay and titles, especially at the more senior levels. New buildings have sprung up like giant mushrooms, many of them endowed by foreign benefactors. Not all of them, I observe, used to capacity all the time.
Some of this expansion was illusory. The number of universities shot up in part because of the rush of former polytechnics to restyle themselves universities the moment this became possible in 1992. Most of it, though, was the result of the institutions themselves growing exponentially, spurred on by the last government's desire that 50 per cent of school-leavers should enter higher education. Many universities also joined a cut-throat contest to attract foreign students, because their much-higher fees could be used to fund more places for Britons. So intertwined have university finances now become that higher fees, rather than fewer students, is seen as the answer to every question.
The popularisation of higher education was, in its way, an admirable cause, but it was one generated more by ideology and the supposed requirements of the "knowledge economy" than by anything else. Social mobility remains stalled and the top universities are more dominated by the privileged than before. So maybe the preferable course would be to reduce student numbers – and not just because their capacity to block Whitehall would be diminished.
Employers and others increasingly complain about the calibre of many graduates, not just in their chosen specialities – but in the basics, such as standards of written English and the work ethic. They also complain about professional courses offering too much theory and too little practice. Granted that employability need not be the sole criterion of educational success, the value of a British university education does not seem to have increased with the numbers admitted. So long as selection is according to qualifications and potential, rather than ability to pay, fewer students should mean better.
Universities will doubtless complain that fewer students would mean that each has to pay more – but that is only true if the size of departments and multiplicity of courses on offer remain the same. After a period of such rapid expansion, it is now time to scythe through duplication and foster a few centres of excellence. There may also be an argument for developing a two-tier system on the US model, with four-year courses for some, giving students a first year to decide where their aptitude lies, and two-year courses for others.
Much of the recent university expansion reflects a dubious "academicisation" of skills, as nursing, accountancy and, yes, journalism have become more and more graduate professions. Reversing this trend, far from lowering standards, could have the effect of producing a workforce that is actually better – more quickly, more cheaply, and more appropriately – trained.
The Government may hope that higher fees will lead to more of a "market" in courses, with students "shopping around" for a degree that will pay off and universities forced to adapt what they offer accordingly. Perhaps that will happen. In the short term, though, the risk is of graduates weighed down by debt for the sake of degrees worth no more than A-levels. Rather than wait for the market to cut student numbers, the universities should take the initiative and revert to their traditional pursuit of academic excellence. This is still what universities are for.