Black Christmas for the academy

Sector responds to festive ‘kick in the teeth for staff and students’. John Morgan reports

December 23, 2009

Cuts to the higher education budget will leave universities struggling to meet student expectations and on the brink of “serious decay”, the Government has been warned.

University mission groups have criticised the £135 million cut to the Higher Education Funding Council for England budget, announced in the annual grant letter yesterday.

Some £84 million is to be switched from capital baselines, with £51 million cut from the teaching grant – down to £5.0 billion in 2010-11.

However, the mission groups had differing takes on the detail of the letter.

The Russell Group of large research-intensive universities welcomed Lord Mandelson’s call for greater research concentration, while Million+, which represents post-1992 institutions, said the move would “infuriate staff at universities that teach the majority of the UK’s students”.

Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, called for urgent clarification on whether the cuts form part of the £600 million reductions already announced in the pre-Budget report, adding that the smaller sums available “will put universities under severe pressure”.

“A reduction in public funding per student could seriously threaten our ability to offer the high-quality experience our students deserve and expect,” he said.

He added that the increasing cost of student support made it even more important that this was examined by Lord Browne’s review of university funding.

Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, welcomed the Government’s attempt to make the cuts in a way that “minimises any financial impact on front-line teaching”.

She said it was now all the more important that the Browne review “enables our leading universities to access more funds” so that they can continue to compete internationally.

On the cuts to capital cash, she said that while funding had been generous over the past decade, it was vital that universities be funded to maintain top-quality infrastructure.

She also backed Lord Mandelson’s call for more research concentration.

Les Ebdon, chair of Million+, said the cuts were “serious and avoidable”, adding that 22 December “will go down as a good day for the Government to bury bad news for universities and students alike”.

“Both are being made to pay for the Government’s failure to provide sufficient funds for student support and teaching, and there will be another shortage of places in 2010,” he said.

He also voiced strong opposition to the call for greater research concentration.

Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive institutions, said he was concerned about the impact that the reductions, “in addition to those substantial cuts announced earlier in the year and in the pre-Budget report, will have on the sector’s ability to deliver the highest-quality student experience”.

He added: “Further investment is the only viable option to prevent universities from being forced into severe cutbacks that would cause a serious decay in the UK’s higher education system, with universities struggling to maintain teaching or research quality, unable to invest in the necessary world-class facilities or staff, and incapable of meeting our students’ or nation’s needs.”

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the grant letter was a “Christmas kick in the teeth for staff and students”.

“We will see teachers on the dole, students in larger classes and a higher education sector unable to contribute as much to the economy or society,” she said.

“How all that marries with a government that is pioneering a university sector more reliant on student feedback is beyond me.”

David Willetts, Conservative Shadow Universities Secretary, said the fines of £3,700 per person announced for universities that over-recruited did not fit with the Government’s drive to get 50 per cent of young people into higher education.

“We now have the bizarre situation that universities are being fined for meeting targets set by this government,” he said.

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