BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 23.06.02

Film: TERRY DIGNAN reports on the funding crisis afflicting Britain's universities.

But first there is a crisis in education ... higher education. The universities say they simply don't have enough money to educate all the students. It's been getting worse over the years because the number of students has been going up. The government wants half of all young people to be in higher education by 2010. That will cost. As Terry Dignan reports, the vice chancellors are saying that something's gotta give. TERRY DIGNAN: Tony Blair wants these fourteen year olds to aim for higher education. Many are from backgrounds where going to university isn't the norm. So this group have come to London's South Bank University for a taste of college life. But those who run our institutions of higher learning fear the Government is offering them education on the cheap. The Government wants our universities to absorb hundreds of thousands more students and provide them with world class teaching and research facilities. But this could mean a worsening funding crisis for higher education unless the Government foots the bill. The alternative is to ask those who currently pay towards their tuition to dig deeper into their pockets. For Labour that's politically risky. IVOR CREWE: If the university system is to expand more money must be found to persuade poor students to go to university and to get universities to find ways of recruiting them and then keeping them. That additional money has either got to be found from taxes which is politically unpopular or it's got to be raised from better off students and their families, which is also politically unpopular. SIR RICHARD SYKES: We've always prided ourselves on our higher education system. It's certainly been one of the best in the world, but to-day, I believe it's in real jeopardy, and it's in real jeopardy because it is under financed. DIGNAN: The student population under both Labour and Tory governments has grown enormously. It doubled between 1989-90 when there were just over a million - and last year, when there were more than two million students in higher education. Yet spending per student here at South Bank and other universities has been severely cut - down nearly forty per cent over the same period. Although Labour has halted the decline in funding, it is still well below 1980's levels. SIR CREWE: There is a funding crisis in British universities and it really arises from the fact that there's a been a real cut practically every year over the last twenty years in the amount of money that universities get per student. DIGNAN: Tony Blair promises that fifty per cent of eighteen to thirty year olds will be in higher education by 2010 - an extra three hundred and fifty thousand students. But whereas seventy-three per cent of eighteen year olds from professional middle class families go to university, only thirteen per cent from unskilled backgrounds study for a degree. Which means South Bank's Vice Chancellor is spending more on working with inner city schools to encourage pupils there to aspire to higher education. If he can't fill his undergraduate places, the Government takes money away from him. ACTUALITY: "How many of you have never been inside a university before?" DIGNAN: Many of South Bank's students don't have as strong an academic background as those at Oxbridge, for example. Which makes them arguably more expensive to teach. PROFESSOR DEIAN HOPKIN: They don't have the kind of family backgrounds which have books and support. They need a lot more encouragement. And indeed their prospects they often feel themselves are not quite as good as those from more privileged backgrounds. That means that the cost of educating that sector of the population is bound to be greater so you add up numbers and additional costs and you have a serious deficit in funding coming up. ACTUALITY: "This is Perry Library and we have three hundred thousand books." DIGNAN: The agency which distributes Government funds to English universities says students from less well-off areas are thirty per cent more expensive to teach. And it warns that without extra funding, Labour may have to drop its fifty per cent participation target. SIR HOWARD NEWBY: It is very important that we don't sell our students a false prospectus, that we don't attract increasing numbers of students into a system which is of declining quality. I don't believe this government wants that, I certainly don't want that, and so if the resources are not available then I think we, we would have to re-examine the, the targets. ACTUALITY: "Theo's got the steady hand." DIGNAN: The day out includes a team building exercise. But many students are on their own financially. Labour has abandoned maintenance grants and introduced tuition fees. Although the less well off don't pay fees, some argue it's made raising participation levels even harder. Vice chancellors hope a review of student funding will help those most in need. PROFESSOR HOPKIN: When they arrive you have to keep on encouraging them because of course the monumental task of facing new challenges and often very serious financial obligations, you think about this, many of these students are facing student debts greater than their parents earn and that is really a quite considerable obstacle." DIGNAN: Imperial College, London, demands the highest entry standards of its students, many of whom are from better off families. But like South Bank, it's short of cash. Tony Blair wants elite institutions like Imperial to compete with the world's best, especially in science and technology. Fine, they say. We'd love to. But how can we when we don't have anything like the financial muscle of the top American universities. SYKES: We can show very clearly that we're under funded about three thousand pounds per student per year. That means that as a college we're losing about forty million pounds a year on educating students. How can we survive under those circumstances. How can we remain internationally competitive, its impossible." DR IAN GIBSON MP: Many of the talented people have gone elsewhere, they've gone to the States, to Europe and other countries to do their work. And particularly because not only do they want to teach students but they also want to do research and the research funding has not been to the level that's necessary to compete with Japan, Europe and the United States, so it's been very difficult to keep the excellence that we once had. DIGNAN: Imperial College has found the money to research ways of eradicating malaria. But with so many more students, higher education cash is spread thinly. A proposed graduate tax would take years to produce much revenue. Universities say they need the cash now - an extra nine billion to pay for more students, teachers and better facilities. Gordon Brown is promising more for science. But now that students are paying towards their education, he's unlikely to take much away from other priorities. WENDY PIATT: Higher education is probably not a priority. And particularly because the students themselves are able to contribute more there would be a reluctance from the Treasury to inject a lot more money into the system. DIGNAN: The Government could put a lot more money into higher education quite easily with a big increase in tuition fees. Labour politicians, though, Tony Blair included, get very nervous about asking their middle class constituents to cough up more for their children's education. Yet top universities like Imperial want to go even further and set their own fees. SYKES: We would set our fees based on the institution, based on our mission, based on our courses, based on what we offer and the final product, and of course, that means that we'd have to charge full fees. If we did that, we would have to charge full fees only to those who could afford it, then we would have to have hardship funds, scholarships, bursaries, so that those people who were talented, who came in to the college on the basis of, of talent and quality were actually funded then, through the hardship funds. DIGNAN: University funding is being examined closely in Wales and Northern Ireland who want to follow Scotland where contributions towards tuition are made after graduation. But many English universities oppose this. Instead, the most popular, like Imperial, want to levy their own charges. Ministers are now reconsidering their opposition to so called top up fees. PIATT: Should the theology student from Luton pay the same as the law student from Oxford, and the older universities should be charging much higher fees for their courses because they would be able to do so. ACTUALITY; "OK, so now let's look at some examples of one D-data." DIGNAN: There are signs support for top up fees is spreading beyond elite institutions. At the very least, say many vice chancellors, the current flat fee of just over a thousand pounds must be increased if next month's comprehensive spending review doesn't come up with the money they want. These medical students won't welcome the prospect. And neither will Labour MPs. GIBSON: I have had some of the most uncomfortable moments of my political career so far as Norwich North MP in terms of dinner parties and parties and on the street and in the supermarkets where people come up and say; oh thank you very much it's really great the Labour government is asking us to pay a large percentage of our salaries towards having two or three of our young people going into higher education, that's not why we voted Labour. SYKES: I think everybody complains because once something's been free and then you start to charge for it, people complain. There's no logic to it. Twenty five per cent or more of people entering university full time education in this country today, come out of independent schools. That means they're coming from families that have been paying substantial amounts of money for their secondary education. This is a crazy situation, they're now coming in to tertiary education and getting it basically free. DIGNAN: Labour says it has already put more money into universities, especially for science research. But many of those who run our institutions of higher learning are less than impressed. At best, they say, the decline in the quality of higher education has slowed not halted. CREWE: What will happen is that we will have a very cheap mass higher education system in which inevitably the quality of the learning experience for students will gradually deteriorate. It'll then raise the question as to whether it's worth while expanding the system in the first place. SYKES: There's got to be a fundamental break now to make sure that the top universities particularly are being funded for the full economic costs of what they do. And if they're not funded for the full economic costs of what they do, they won't be able to attract the best people from anywhere in the world, they won't be able to remain competitive and if our universities don't remain competitive, particularly in terms of research and scholarship, the country won't remain competitive on an economic basis. DIGNAN: Labour has made schools its priority, not higher education. Yet it has put universities under intense pressure - to recruit more students, especially from poorer backgrounds - and compete on a world stage. But who will pay has still to be decided.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.