Birkbeck mulls 'new opportunities' to soften blow of ELQ funding cuts

Mergers, fast-track degrees and new provision aim to 'sustain mission'. Rebecca Attwood reports

May 29, 2008

Birkbeck, University of London, has announced plans to restructure and develop new areas of provision - including "accelerated" part-time degrees - following government cuts that will severely hit its funding.

The aims of the plan will include recruiting more international students, building home student numbers through increased employer engagement and widening participation, developing more foundation and postgraduate degrees, and more flexible ways of learning.

Last autumn, John Denham, the Universities Secretary, announced that public funds for students studying for second degrees would be cut by £100 million, in order to redirect the money to first-time students.

Birkbeck is among the institutions worst hit by the cuts. A specialist provider of part-time, evening higher education, 38 per cent of its teaching grant is allocated to students studying for qualifications equivalent to, or at a lower level than, those they already hold (ELQs).

But this week, David Latchman, the college's master, told staff that a review by accountancy firm Grant Thornton has identified "new opportunities" offering Birkbeck "a robust future". The report foresees a new academic and administrative structure, including the amalgamation of the college's 16 schools into four or five "super schools".

Professor Latchman, who has launched a consultation on the proposals, told Times Higher Education: "This is not an exercise to generate redundancies or save money. We need to restructure and bid successfully for student places so ... we can sustain our traditional mission."

One possibility is adapting the Government's new "fast-track" degrees to part-time provision.

"Undergraduates (now) start with the premise that they study for four years in the evening. If you build on that evening study - at weekends or in the summer - it may be possible to complete in three or two years," Professor Latchman said.

The college will aim to create a "seamless" student experience and progression routes. Rather than existing as a separate department, lifelong learning will be integrated into each of the "super schools".

The core of college activities will remain part-time education, with a focus on non-traditional students, in a research-intensive environment.

According to Higher Education Funding Council for England figures, Birkbeck will need £4.6 million in "safety net" funding in 2010-11 to make up for ELQ cuts. The Government has not guaranteed safety net funding beyond 2010-11.

Professor Latchman said he remained opposed to ELQ cuts, but that Birkbeck could not merely "pray for safety net funding to continue".

The specialist nature of the college meant that it was not the first time Birkbeck had had to adapt to funding changes, he said.

The college's expansion of provision to Stratford has proved successful, with more than 600 enrolments in its first year.

In addition, Birkbeck has seen a 20 per cent increase in students from east London coming to the Bloomsbury campus. Applications across the college are up by 10 per cent.

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