Two recent speeches by Ministers in the UK’s new (since May) coalition government have set out the government’s stall on higher education. The Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts (a Conservative), gave a speech on 10 June, and his boss, the Secretary of State, Vincent Cable (a Liberal Democrat) gave one on 15 July. Both speeches were made in the shadow of the large cuts expected in the higher education budget in October: if the cuts then are anything like the scale being talked about (25% up to 40%), then current debates about the precise mechanism for charging tuition fees, or about the balance between teaching and research funding, then the tired simile of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic will for once be quite apt.
“If”, though, is still the correct word. In other policy areas, when ideas about relatively modest cuts have been floated (such as reductions in fare concessions for older people using public transport), they have been instantly denied. In higher education, a newly-created university, Cumbria, in rural north-west England, has run into severe financial difficulties, but there seems to be no possibility of it being allowed to go under: additional public resources will be found for it (though probably at the expense of every other public university). Cumbria would, from the government’s point of view, be a relatively - relatively - good place to begin making deep cuts in university spending (if only on the “last in, first out” principle): if this is too politically difficult, it is hard to see where they will start.
Cable’s speech floated the idea of a graduate tax replacing the present system, which has some of the characteristics of a tax, albeit a regressive one. The problem, though, is that it would be years before serious money was collected from such a tax, and the need for cash is now. Also, the idea that the Treasury would treat revenue from it as being ring-fenced for higher education is frankly laughable, whatever elaborate processes are suggested to separate it from government revenue more generally.
UK higher education is still waiting, then, to understand what the future of public funding for universities will be.