Cuts are inevitable, so let's join the debate 1

January 7, 2010

Civil servants always complain about funding cuts. Police are the "thin blue line" between peace and anarchy. Without firemen, our cities would burn to the ground. Doctors keep us alive. And universities provide the education necessary to maintain leading "knowledge-based" economies. In fact, research and teaching are critical to the foundations of what it means to be British.

There is no budget, it seems, that can be cut, or else society will face an inevitable decline. This is the logic of many responses to the recently announced cuts to higher education funding ("Hefce budget to be slashed by £915m over three years", 31 December).

Lord Mandelson's announcement comes at a time of great anxiety not only for those in the academic sector, but also for people in all walks of life. Britain is still in recession. Tax revenues are down, and will remain so as long as unemployment is high and salaries low. At some point, public spending must be cut.

This situation should be put in a wider context. Public spending in Western countries is at an all-time high, debt continues to grow and the bond market is punishing for nations that borrow at rates that seem unsustainable.

The fact is that the social-welfare model of spending is facing its greatest crisis in decades. Governments face a double-edged sword: either quit spending on state services and let the economy falter because of low demand, risking a prolonged recession, or face an international bond market revolt, as people decide to quit buying UK bonds. If this revolt occurs, the pound will crash, the economy will be destabilised and the Government will find itself unable to fund its vast array of programmes. Universities may be in an even worse position then.

If anything, the cuts are perhaps a good sign. Government spending has to fall in line with economic reality. The Government has been exceedingly coy about announcing funding cuts, but the writing is on the wall: they must occur if the UK is to remain solvent. Both Labour and the Conservatives agree on this: the only difference is in the wording.

The cries of the demise of the British academy are unfounded. UK schools are still world leaders in research - their stellar rankings compared with their European counterparts will not be eroded within a year or two.

The American academic job market is an utter shambles. American schools face even steeper funding cuts. My own PhD programme may be unable to fund a great many of the students admitted because the university is cutting funding to all departments. Few schools or countries will gain an edge over UK schools because of the proposed funding cuts.

Of course, no one wants to see cuts, and the first instinct is self-preservation. But the fact is that cuts will occur, and it is perhaps better if the UK sector has an intelligent, rational conversation about ways to save money, thus becoming part of the debate, instead of offering a knee-jerk reaction.

No one likes to receive bad news, but put into context, the cuts are part of the wider economic reality. Let's be part of the debate so we can make effective decisions earlier, thus building the foundations for growth when the economy and the state budget are more robust.

Brett Bennett, PhD student in history, University of Texas at Austin.

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