Leader: The US has more robust ways of fighting fund cuts

March 15, 2002

They are playing hard ball in Wisconsin. The state university system has voted to suspend undergraduate admissions to its 26 campuses in response to a cut of $51 million (£36.2 million) in its state grant and a further $20 million cut partly through a cap on increases in tuition charges. Wisconsin is not alone in facing cuts, though its action is the most dramatic so far.

The Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts, which faces a $15 million cut in state grants, has threatened to axe seven of its 29 sports teams, a telling blow for sports-mad legislators from a university with one of the largest athletics programmes in the US. It is often forgotten in heated discussions about the so-called American model of higher education that, while the great private universities enjoy most of the prestige, the large state university systems, led by California, Wisconsin and Michigan, carry out huge amounts of research and educate much greater numbers of students at (for in-state students) much more reasonable fees. These tiered confederations of institutions are the powerhouses of US higher education. They are more closely controlled by state governments than are British universities and are subject to fluctuations in funding that make the real-terms cuts of a few per cent being inflicted this month on English universities pale into insignificance.

Wisconsin's robust action makes the threat by Universities UK not to press on towards the government's 50 per cent participation target unless extra numbers are fully funded look puny. UUK does not have an impressive track record in delivering on sabre-rattling threats. Some among its members can usually be relied on to break ranks, and present circumstances, with extra students bringing extra cash, are unlikely to prove exceptional. Nor is the criterion for resistance clear cut. Extra students have been fully funded this year and the funding council can move the cash around to counter any specific threat. UUK is right to identify the participation target as an issue the government cares about. It has the added merit of not dividing members. But the real issue in this year's settlement is research. What has emerged is that the funding council has sacrificed international-standard research in biomedical and clinical sciences to give more to institutions that are doing well at recruiting students from poor backgrounds, to increase the unit of resource for teaching and to cushion research in other areas.

Picking on an area that carries such promise for internationally competitive work looks bizarre given government policy to develop and exploit such advances. Could it be that the funding council is relying on funding deficiencies being made up through the science vote in the spending review while money for mainstream teaching, for arts, humanities and social sciences and for widening participation must come from the funding council if it is to come from anywhere?

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