THE spectacular recent increases in some university salaries -- commented on in this space earlier this week -- have been followed by the announcement of cuts in government funding for the great majority of English universities.

More than one hundred have had their budgets reduced or frozen with the result that some six thousand fewer students will be enrolled in September than in the past few years even though applications have risen by twenty-three per cent. These economies will be the first for the thirteen years that Labour has been in power.

There are some interesting pointers in the way that the Higher Education Funding Council has imposed its cuts. The newer universities have been hit hardest while the Russell Group of twenty leading establishments have been treated more gently. The top five research universities -- Oxford, Cambridge, University College London , Imperial College London and Manchester -- which are in the world class have emerged relatively unscathed as have other universities specialising in science, mathematics and technology. This is a reflection of the government's view that universities must increasingly align their priorities to the needs of science, industry and business while “softer” subjects such as the arts, although commendable, should take second place.

Economies in education can never be welcomed without qualification but it is possible to think that the expansion of the past thirteen years has done enough to create greater equality at university level and that a period of consolidation may bring some benefits.