Questions arising from Forsyth's spending ploy

13th December 1996 at 00:00
The problem the Secretary of State gives himself in dressing up all news as good news is that genuine progress is not recognised. A sceptical public always assumes there is a catch. In his spending statement on Monday, Michael Forsyth removed next year's cuts from higher education. Since a moratorium on the rolling programme of "efficiency gains" is what university principals had been calling for, the concession is welcome. Of course it is far from representing growth in their budgets but, as they wrestle with unprecedented industrial unrest, they will know that whatever modest pay rises are eventually conceded can just about be met.

Throughout his statement to the Grand Committee, Mr Forsyth linked funding priorities to evidence of good housekeeping. Higher education has coped with increased numbers of students on falling budgets. At some point quality would be bound to suffer. Principals will hope the Government has recognised that moment has arrived.

But probably the funding concession is mainly in deference the Dearing committee. Upheaval in higher education is not wanted this side of the election, and to Sir Ron Dearing has been left pondering the unthinkable - top-up student fees, for example.

The priority which Mr Forsyth professed for education in general is unfortunately not borne out by the facts. Direct funding counts for little at school level. Extra money for school security will be helpful, as will further tranches for initiatives such as Higher Still. But apparent generosity at national level is completely overlain by cuts in grants to councils, which pay most of the bills for schools and community education.

Nothing that Mr Forsyth said on Monday will relieve the much publicised pressure on education budgets. Dire predictions from the major cities as well as most councils remain. No doubt Mr Forsyth's response will be to contrast the savings made by health boards with the continuing profligacy of local government. But using such a measure as the basis for fund allocation begs several questions.

One is whether efficiency in the health service has been bought too dearly. Another is whether examples of council follies, lovingly collected by Conservative propagandists, are typical.

But the most important question is how, in rejecting councils' arguments for more money, the Government envisages teachers' salaries being paid and schools kept weatherproof.

To meet the shortfall, local government will look to the council tax. In the run-up to the election, ministers will seek to blame Labour councils for higher tax demands. The councils will point the finger at Mr Forsyth. In a propaganda war aimed at votes, the Government's strategy is at best risky. When tried last year, it brought 40,000 protesters on to the streets.

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