Vice chancellors have been nervously anticipating the Government’s announcement of funding for 10,000 new student places for weeks. Lord Mandelson may not know much about universities, but he knows that 50,000 would-be students fighting for 3,000 places during clearing means weeks of hideous headlines for his new super-department. This was a point that Gordon Brown digested rather swiftly too. The issue was of course the Treasury, which defiantly repeated - NO. Lord Mandelson was assuring officials that he could force universities to take students with absolutely no extra funding (lecture halls in many under-resourced universities now bulge with a couple of hundred undergraduates so what difference will another fifty make?) But they knew that the Government would nonetheless take a massive hit on maintenance and student loan support. With so much else to bail out and prop up, higher education simply wasn’t a priority.
Better in education than on the dole queue for these 10, 000 to be sure, though the press may yet have a party with the remaining 30, 000. But let’s not take this as a sign Lord Mandelson is committed to protecting higher education. Vice chancellors will come to regret having accepted the precedent of cashless places. Indeed, the majority of the top research universities will refuse to accept any of these new students on principle, leaving newer universities to take up the slack. And the decision to focus these places on science and maths subjects is a reminder of where universities are heading under Mandelson’s rule. Higher education used to be about learning to think, to question. It used to be about developing our society, and about broadening individuals. Let there be no doubt that under this Government, universities are now about nothing more than the economy.
Anna Fazackerley is Head of the Education Unit at Policy Exchange.