Leader: All for one, or none for all?

An every-university-for-itself stance in the face of more austerity could leave higher education worse off as a sector

May 3, 2012

The news that the economy has slipped back into recession, the first double dip since the 1970s, put paid to any notion that the worst of the austerity drive was behind us. Instead the government's spending review - which looks increasingly likely to be before the end of 2013 - is looming large on the horizon, with storm clouds louring.

The realities of the situation were outlined in a recent blog by Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank and former head of policy at 10 Downing Street.

He reports that departmental spending on public services will be cut in real terms by an annual average of 3.8 per cent in the first two years of the next spending review period (2015-16 and 2016-17). This compares with 2.3 per cent in the current period.

"This is grim stuff, to put it mildly," Pearce writes, pointing out that a lot of the "low-hanging fruit" has already been picked.

This fruit includes university teaching funding, of course, which has been replaced by the higher tuition fees coming in this autumn.

Despite being one of the first targets for reform when the coalition came to power, however, the sector must not assume that it is now immune from further cuts.

Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, appears to have been trying to nip any such complacency in the bud, warning repeatedly that the next spending review is "not going to be a picnic" and that higher education is in danger of looking "pretty well-heeled" to Treasury bean counters desperate for savings.

The problem with mounting an effective response is that what is required is a genuinely united front to present a much more coherent and comprehensive story of the benefits that higher education delivers to the nation. The narrative of recent years has been one of special-interest groups sniping at one another rather than a true "sector" speaking up for higher education as one, and there are good reasons to believe that situation will continue, and perhaps even worsen.

Not least of these is last week's announcement that the threshold at which student places are removed from core quotas and opened up to competition is to be lowered from grades of AAB at A level or the equivalent to ABB in 2013-14, which will take a third of places outside the numbers cap.

The change has been welcomed by many, but it brings with it a number of dangers.

One is that it will force universities to see each other ever more explicitly as rivals, reducing the chance of a united front against future raids from the Treasury.

Another is the suspicion that if the lower threshold results in an unexpected increase in the number of students, the Treasury will cut other areas of the higher education budget to cover the additional costs of student support.

This threat could extend to the science budget, which has previously been ring-fenced and which appears to have escaped cuts by the skin of its teeth in the last spending review.

As Langlands has intimated, the sector must pull together to shield itself from such prospects, and acknowledging past failings is a good place to start.

"Divide and rule" may be a difficult strategy to resist, but that's not a reason for universities to implement it on themselves.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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