Source: Rex Features
Higher education funding has “bottomed out”, the business secretary has said, suggesting that the sector might avoid major cuts in the government’s spending review this month.
Vince Cable’s comments come amid concerns that universities could face further large cuts as ministers seek to make £10 billion in savings across government for 2015-16, with Mr Cable’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills potentially losing 8 per cent of its funding.
However, speaking to Times Higher Education at the Global University Summit 2013, held in London from 28 to 30 May and hosted by the University of Warwick, Mr Cable said he wanted to ensure that universities were “properly supported”.
He remained optimistic that the “rational argument for government investment” in research, teaching and science would be upheld.
“I’m certainly not arguing for reductions,” he added.
Asked about concerns that universities could face more cuts despite the fact that the UK spends less of its gross domestic product on higher education than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average, Mr Cable said: “We have bottomed out…in a rational world we would be increasing [funding], and certainly I will argue for that.”
At the conference, Mr Cable told delegates that almost every country in the world was trying to find ways to fund the rapid expansion of their higher education sectors, bringing in more students while improving quality.
“Who pays for it?” he asked. “In the UK we’ve been through some politically painful reform, effectively funding university quality and expansion as a result of…taxing graduates on their future earnings.”
But he also expressed concern that British people were not studying subjects that would best equip them for employment.
In one example, he described an “enormous gap” between the number of engineering graduates and the demand for engineers.
“Then, on the other hand, in some occupations we are building up a substantial stock of graduate unemployment,” he said. “The mismatch between demand and supply is often quite extreme.”
Elsewhere in his speech, the business secretary appeared to acknowledge the problems that the government’s immigration policies – which include reducing net migration to “tens of thousands” by 2015 – were causing universities in terms of international recruitment.
He said that although evidence suggests that the public does not perceive international students as migrants, the United Nations had “in its wisdom” classified them as such.
This “statistical anomaly” meant that any decline in the number of overseas students might be perceived as a “triumph for immigration control”, a situation he described as absurd.
To prevent tension between the government’s migration target and the recruitment of foreign students, ministers needed to find “a cleverer way to present the data”, he said.
Mr Cable also agreed that there was a problem with how the UK’s immigration policies were being perceived overseas – particularly in Southern Asia.
“In India there has been vigorous criticism of the UK, largely following the debate in British newspapers and treating that as objective reality, which it isn’t,” he said.
“The message has gone out that British universities no longer want Indian students, which is wrong. But that’s the message that has gone out.”
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