Can the Government achieve its manifesto goal of 50% university participation? Vice chancellors say this is impossible without diluting standards. Some of them want nothing of it all - and instead create a British Ivy League of top flight institutions. The Liberal Democrats say the Government's goal can only be achieved by giving the universities more money - recent data suggests that nearly 30% of universities will be in deficit by 2005.
Both views are wrong because they miss the point. Labour's commitment is not simply to boost university numbers. The Government's target is subtly different to the commonly held interpretation. By the end of the decade, the Government wants 50% of young people to benefit from higher education before they reach the age of 30. But it does not see the university sector - or the orthodox entry route via A' levels - as the exclusive way to achieve this.
Not surprisingly many traditionalists baulk at this. But spluttered outrage over the assault on standards of scholarship misses the critical point. Universities have changed dramatically already. A generation ago, less than 1 in 10 young people went to university. Today it is almost 4 in 10. And much of that growth occurred during a period in which overall participation rates in non-university post-16 learning scarcely changed. Relatively privileged families got themselves a good deal.
A university standard education guarantees a dramatically improved life and work chance for its beneficiaries. Achieving a level 4 qualification typically delivers a 28% wage gain over level 3 and a 45% premium over level 2. The risk of unemployment - particularly the incidence of long jobless spells - tumbles spectacularly for people with degrees.
"Do we really need so many graduates?" ask traditional academics. Wrong question. We certainly do not need more people educated to Oxbridge cultural standards. But, of the 2.1m growth in employment projected by the end of the decade, 55% will require minimum qualifications at level 4 and higher - at present only a quarter of jobs are filled by employees with level 4. Over the last 10 years, the number of jobs requiring a level 4 qualification has consistently risen by 1 percentage point each year.
Despite these clear benefits to individuals and to the economy, the university sector - like many other institutions - has perpetuated social inequalities. Less than 1 in 7 young people whose parents are in "working class" occupations go to university - indeed, less than 1,000 young people from the bottom 2 social classes make it each year. Almost effortlessly, by contrast, 3 out of every 4 young "middle class" youngsters start at university.
Four big changes - in addition to the clear need for a more rational system of financial support for learners - are required:
Most significantly, the new "higher education offering" should be delivered by new provider institutions. Ideally these should organised into consortia of FE and HE colleges - especially those that have developed Centres of Vocational Excellence - with employers, specialist providers and what the Cassels Committee defines as Modern Apprenticeship "agents" working with employers. The Higher Education Funding Council has jointly published a document with the LSC that starts to identify progression and collaboration mechanisms.
A pattern of partnerships and institutional consolidation is already underway. Colleges and universities are developing joint campuses and exploring new ways of collaboration. In some places, we are effectively watching the re-invention of Polytechnics.
The LSC should use its legal powers and substantially increased capital funding to support and encourage this.