Yesterday, in what has been called "a real Christmas kick in the teeth", the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, announced that more than half a billion pounds will be cut from university budgets next year.
The £533m cuts include £263m that had already been set out, with an additional £270m. This will reduce next year's university budget to just £7.3bn.
In another sting, the letter said that universities which over-recruited students this summer after a record number of applications fuelled by the recession will be fined £3,700 for each extra student they accepted. There will be no funding for extra students next year.
But hang on a minute. Isn't this the same government that pledged, back in 1999, to get 50 per cent of all young people into university by 2010?
The government's attitude towards higher education appears to have two clear, but utterly contradictory, strands. The first is the commendable aim to broaden access to education, while retaining the world-class standing of Britain's universities. The second is to give it less and less funding.
I hate to state the obvious, but widening participation was always going to be expensive: more people means greater costs. Indeed, this was the problem Labour faced when it came to power. By the mid-1990s, student numbers had increased hugely over those of the 1970s, but funding per student had dropped by roughly 36 per cent. Hence the introduction of tuition fees in 1999, and top-up fees in 2006, bringing them to their current level of £3,225 annually.
While Labour has failed to up the numbers to 50 per cent of young people -- it was 39.8 per cent in 2007 -- the pressure on universities to get more "bums on seats" has placed an inevitable strain on both quality and funding. The additional tuition fees only go so far to bridge the gap. Oxford University, for example, which steadfastly refuses to compromise its tutorial system of teaching in very small groups, said earlier this year that it loses £8,000 on each undergraduate student.
It cannot be disputed that there is simply not enough money in the pot to pay for our higher education system. But what I can't understand -- perhaps I'm being dense? -- is why and how a government that has placed such an emphasis on "education, education, education" (yes, that had to be in here somewhere) seems so resistant to funding it. In August, the former education secretary Estelle Morris made the point that higher education would be the obvious area to protect for a government that "has made the case for investing in skills and knowledge as the best way to secure all our futures".
Mandelson suggests that universities reduce the length of their undergraduate degree courses to two years instead of three. Such a drastic move should not be undertaken to cut costs. As Michael Arthur, the then chair of the National Student Survey steering group, warned in 2007:
The UK HE system is right up there at second or third in the world after the US in terms of its competitiveness. I'm really worried that in ten to 20 years' time we will be 20th in the world and we are sleepwalking towards that outcome.
In 2006, UK spending on tertiary education was 1.3 per cent of GDP, up from just 1 per cent in 1997 when Labour took over. It's an improvement, but it's not enough -- even in 2006, the actual sum spent was £2.7bn less than for other countries surveyed.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said at the time:
No country that sees itself as a global leader in higher education can be in the bottom half of any table that lists how much money is being spent on higher education.
Her words ring true. Internationally and at home, those cuts could be devastating.