It is, as many in the university world have been quick to point out, a deeply ironic moment. Universities are facing fines for doing their utmost to meet the Government's target of getting 50 per cent of youngsters into higher education.
For years that pledge, made by Tony Blair way back in 2001, has been made to look completely unrealistic. Originally, it was to be achieved by the end of the decade. Then it became an aspiration. Apparently, it still is an aspiration, despite the £518m cut in the higher education funding grant for 2010/11 announced by Lord Mandelson last week. Meanwhile, the participation rate still remains around the 43 per cent mark.
Suddenly last summer, however, it looked as though there could be a breakthrough, as masses of would-be undergraduates queued up to apply for university places in the teeth of a recession that offered them precious few opportunities on the jobs market.
More than 600,000 people applied for places and 477, 277 applicants were successful – a 5.6 percentage point rise on the previous year's figure of 451, 871.
Was joy unconfined in Whitehall? Was it, heck. The response from Lord Mandelson, in his letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, was to warn universities that had recruited above the number of students the Government had budgeted for that they would face fines of £3,700 per head – roughly the equivalent of providing them with teaching and facilities for a year.
It has always been the case that universities face fines if they over-recruit. It is part of the Government's mechanism for controlling funding. So why did so many – one estimate puts the figure as high as 22,000 students – react in the way they did?
One school of thought is they witnessed the Government's approach to 16- to 19-year-olds – where a funding crisis earlier in the year threatened to present about 50,000 youngsters with the prospect of having no sixth-form place last September (again as so many youngsters wanting to stay on as a result of the recession). Emergency funding was immediately found in the Budget.
A "September guarantee" was produced promising any 16- to 19-year-old who wanted a sixth-form, college or training place. It extends to next year as well. Indeed, it is one of Labour's most oft-repeated boasts when it comes to electioneering. And, of course, it fitted in with the Government's agenda of raising the education participation age to 18 .
However, if the court of public opinion could prompt so quick a change of heart over 16- to 19-year-olds, the argument went, why not over higher education, too?
After all, those turned away could suffer a similar plight to the 16- to 19-year-olds without a place – the prospect of becoming Neets (not in education, employment or training or – another way of putting it – on the streets).
To be fair to the Government, it does envisage student numbers continuing to increase despite the cutbacks. Lord Mandelson is busy urging universities to introduce more two-year degree courses – fast-tracking the most talented students through their degrees. This already happens at King's College London with their nursing degree for those who already have a university qualification, and in foundation degree courses for those not opting to
follow the traditional path into university through A-levels. These courses, too, would be in the kind of skills of which industry is in such need – the kind of vocational courses traditionally supplied by the former polytechnics before they all became universities in 1992.
Lord Mandelson makes it clear that he wants universities to plan for a shift away from three-year degree courses during the three years of the next comprehensive spending review (until 2014).
However, the universities argue – with Professor Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire (the kind of university that would be supplying these courses), prominent among them – that this is small beer. Not enough students would be attracted to this route and, indeed, if they were to form a major part of higher education provision, there would be hard questions about the quality of what was on offer. And this could damage the UK's international reputation as a higher education provider. It is second only to the United States in attracting international students, at present.
In addition, if the Government really does believe its 50 per cent participation figure is still a runner, it does not seem right that it has already indicated to universities that its decision to allow them to take in 10,000 extra students this summer is a "one-off" not to be repeated.
Any suggestion that the circumstances which led to the clamour for places last September will not repeat itself seems to be way off beam – given that provisional figures for applications to university in 2010 show a 11.6 percentage point rise compared to the same time this year.
So what should be done? Well, provision of the kind of skills-based post-18 qualifications that the country needs will not be achieved if we rely on just promoting two-year courses.
It is ironic that the only burst of applause for the Mandelson letter comes from the privately run University of Buckingham, whose vice-chancellor Terence Kealey argues that it was cuts to higher education funding in the US which led to the creation of the elite "Ivy League" universities – such as Harvard and Yale – which could survive on other streams of incomes such as endowments from former students.
However, it should be remembered that it is the less selective universities in the UK that have been widely responsible for any successes in the Government's drive to widen participation in higher education among disadvantaged groups.
In addition, the cuts have allowed the Conservatives to appear as the benefactors of higher education with David Willetts, their universities spokesman, promising another 10,000 places for undergraduates this autumn.
Is this the image that Labour really wants to take to the electorate during next year's campaign?
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