But everyone can't be excellent. The University of Derby cannot have a fine library; the University of Sunderland cannot have CD-Rom readers; the University of the West of England cannot have well-found labs. Or rather, if they did, what would become of the acknowledged first-rate science and scholarship undertaken at Imperial and University College, London, at Manchester and Leeds, let alone Oxford and Cambridge, as money is siphoned off in the name of equality for the rest?
Universities have to choose. One option is to bifurcate, abandon the pretence that they are all basically the same kind of place and accept that some belong to an elite. That's a hard concept to swallow in the politically correct world of academe. But the time has come for Britain's dozen elite universities to say publicly what their leaders say privately: the price of excellence is inequality.
Yesterday the Higher Education Funding Council for England published a report on postgraduates which it had commissioned from Manchester's vice-chancellor, Martyn Harris. It said pretty much the same as the tough report last month from a group of top engineers, medics, economists and humanities scholars convened by the Royal Society. Quality depends on concentration, on funnelling research money to a smaller number of universities.
Academics vote Labour; they hope that David Blunkett is poised to dash into the Department for Education and Employment and immediately increase higher education budgets. He won't. No conceivable British government over the next decade will increase spending on a unit basis.
What that means is clear. Keeping a small number of British universities in the international first division, able to hold their own with Stanford and Boston let alone Berkeley and Harvard, requires focusing the big research money plus the money for computers and libraries on no more than a dozen universities.
The choice is stark. Understandably, ministers as well as the Higher Education Funding Council for England want to fudge it. The HEFCE runs a complex system based on separate streams of money for research and teaching. The Government's medical, biological, physical and other research councils back specific projects, adding small sums to support the academic infrastructure of libraries and labs.
The elite option means paring the research element back and directing it; it also means upping the flow of teaching money to the top dogs, because their unit costs are inevitably higher. The result is that the Derbys and the Lutons and the Northumbrias and the de Montforts (and the Keeles, Durhams and Liverpools) will get much less for research.
Next week, the governors of the London School of Economics will discuss an internal document arguing that "a mass higher education funding formula is not necessarily compatible with the interests of research-led centres of academic excellence". LSE governors and the representatives of the other elite universities have to be prepared to break with the politically correct consensus and advance their claim while acknowledging this means a different and less glamorous destiny for the rest of the country's 120- odd universities.
Everyone wants to avoid "pickling a list in aspic", as Professor John Davies of Liverpool University puts it. He is an archaeologist who says the humanities, too, can only prosper with more concentration of research funds.
Somehow, over the next few years, our much-expanded higher education system has to be unpicked. Sir Ron Dearing's mini-royal commission due to report next year may make a start. Student loans are coming. So must greater selectivity in government funding, to cosset and protect the top dozen universities. That is the price of international excellence and a distinctive British contribution to scientific progress. The alternative to elitism is mediocrity.
The writer will present 'Degree of Uncertainty', a three-part series on the expansion of higher education on BBC Radio 4 in August.Reuse content