TREASURE the things that are difficult to attain, urges a Chinese motto. It is sage advice that the body which distributes money to English universities seems to be following. On March 17th it said that, although there was less cash in the pot than last year, it would spend less on shiny new buildings (and propping up ancient ones) so that it could afford more for first-rate research and the harder sorts of teaching.
Like other public services, universities have enjoyed a funding boom for more than a decade. Their total income doubled between 1997 and 2009, whereas student numbers increased by just 20%. Academic pay rose and spending on the stuff that motivates many of them–that is, research–rocketed. Wise financial officers squirrelled away money into physical assets such as student accommodation.
Now the public coffers are empty and deals must be done. Excellent research will be funded and mediocre work left to fend for itself. Science, technology, engineering and medicine will prosper at the expense of other subjects. Universities that attract students from poor families who are hard to recruit and liable to drop out will be rewarded for their efforts, albeit not enough to cover their full cost. All this will allow excellence to flourish but choke those in the middle.