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From The Editor - Ministers must stand up to the university bullies

Have ministers been watching too many science fiction films? The ones where the internet becomes self-aware and nukes humanity before we find the off switch, for instance. Or those in which scientists create artificial minds that misuse their genius to slaughter peroxide blondes and do unspeakable things to household pets. Because, like a gaggle of nervous Victor Frankensteins, they seem keener to hobble their creations than to set them free.

Take higher education funding in local colleges. The government, anxious to encourage the notion that not all degrees come with a #163;9,000-a-year price tag, reserved 20,000 extra student places for institutions willing to charge less than #163;7,500 (see pages 22-26). Hardly a monstrous proposition, let alone one that threatens civilisation. In fact, as far as innovations go, it's on the genial Robby the Robot end of the creation spectrum.

Many FE colleges thought they were in with a chance and they ended up bagging half the available places. The initiative played to their strengths. They excel at offering good vocational courses tailored to local employer needs that allow their students, many of whom are non-traditional learners, to study part-time at hours convenient to them. And they can charge a lot less than #163;9,000 a year; many charge between #163;4,500 and #163;6,000.

At which point the traditional purveyors of higher education, universities, decided that the government had spawned a creation more akin to 2001's deadly HAL than the cuddly Robby. After furious lobbying by vice-chancellors, the FE allocation in the next batch of additional student places has been reduced by half. Not content with this, some universities have set about either terminating partnerships with neighbouring FE colleges or forcing them to charge the maximum #163;9,000 fee.

From the universities' point of view this makes perfect sense. It eliminates the threat from low-cost arrivistes and puts paid to the illogicality of expanding student places in further education while the government insists on putting a cap on those in oversubscribed universities. But it looks ugly: the big boys squeezing out the competition for the simple reason that the new kids on the block may do things better and more cheaply.

The government's response has been feeble. Retreating hastily from its earlier radicalism, it protests that it has no wish to recreate the binary divide that used to exist between the old universities and polytechnics. But that is a lame argument. If there is demand for a cheap, technical and flexible education that has no pretence of aping the kind provided by the research universities, and FE colleges want to meet it, what business is it of the government's to thwart this?

FE colleges could add more student places by using employers rather than the government to fund them. But for every privately funded place, they lose a state-funded one. It's like the plot of some ludicrous dystopian novel where no good deed goes unpunished.

Ministers need to change tack, stand up to the university bullies and stick up for their scheme. What is at stake is not just a few student places but a model of higher education delivery; one responsive to the needs of the student rather than the student having to conform to the needs of the institution. That might give vice-chancellors nightmares. There is no reason why ministers should share them.

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