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Ambushed in the cloisters

The principal of Edinburgh University said that the recent meeting of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals was one of which he could tell his grandchildren, I was there. University leaders are indeed pleased with the coup that had the nation's press clamouring at the portals of the CVCP's gathering. By threatening to impose an entry levy of Pounds 300 a student, they gained unaccustomed publicity and seized the intiative from the Government, which spent the following week decrying the need for any such measure.

(Why this Government should oppose the possibility of a private finance raising initiative is another matter. It must be something to do with the approach of the general election.)

Normally higher education is left to react to bad news about money. It was put in that position after the Chancellor's Budget before Christmas. Academics beating their breasts, even in the interests of students rather than in pursuit of higher salaries, do not have much political clout. By appearing to threaten the parents of future students, however, they turned the tables on the Government, which for once had to play the reactive role.

University leaders hope to make the state of higher education an election issue. Edinburgh University, for example, is encouraging students and their parents to write to MPs. When the election comes candidates will be asked to nail their colours to the mast. Government apologists will no doubt point to increased funding for higher education, as they do for the Health Service. But just as the state of the hospitals undermines their case, so the graph of the steadily declining level of funding per student signals a looming crisis.

There will be arguments about the point at which so-called "efficiency gains" which mean less money per student start to inflict real damage. But academic and student leaders alike realise that a system of higher education for the masses (between 35 and 40 per cent of school-leavers) gives unprecedented political leverage. Between students and their parents a very large number of votes are at stake.

Meanwhile the Pounds 300 levy is only a threat which few principals want to use. Top-up tuition fees are also unpopular, especially in Scotland. The ways in which universities can maintain political pressure are few. Non-marking of exams a few years ago was as ineffective as it was unpopular. But the suggestion of a boycott of Government-imposed quality assessments will at least please academic staff who regard them as time-consuming diversions.

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