Cash and quality debate faces UUK

Concerns over standards and funding to dominate 2009 conference. Melanie Newman reports

September 10, 2009

The debate about where universities' priorities should lie as they head into a period of restricted public investment heated up ahead of this week's Universities UK Annual Members' Conference in Edinburgh.

Whereas Steve Smith, president of UUK, focused on maintaining the unit of resource - the amount of teaching funding per student, Les Ebdon, head of the Million+ group of new universities, said institutions should first prove they are serious about maintaining standards, with the money following accordingly.

Professor Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, said vice-chancellors had still "not got the message across to MPs and the wider public about our concern for standards".

He said: "One of the important decisions coming out of the UUK conference will be whether to set up a review group to look at external-examining arrangements ... we can't carry on sitting behind assertions that we have good systems in place."

The sector faces a dilemma over how to widen participation in higher education at a time of falling public expenditure, Professor Ebdon said.

"Should we preserve the quality of experience of the few at the expense of the rest? The key issue is to persuade the Government to invest in higher education. How can we do that without being able to demonstrate that we have sustained standards?"

In his inaugural conference speech as chair of UUK on 10 September, Professor Smith is set to state that maintaining the unit of resource is the sector's number-one priority.

Speaking in advance of the event, he said: "There was a 56 per cent real-terms reduction in the unit of resource between 1976 and 1998. I'm very keen that the sector does not return to that position."

Earlier this year, the Government lifted its cap on the expansion of student numbers by allowing up to 10,000 additional places, but without extra cash for teaching.

Professor Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, said the universities that took on the extra places without full funding had done so "to help out" in "exceptional circumstance". "I completely understand why institutions acted as they did this year, but we cannot keep doing that year after year," he said. However, others have argued that the 10,000 unfunded places were little different from the additional places allowed in previous years.

In 2008-09, universities were allowed to accept more students up to a 5 per cent "tolerance band".

One vice-chancellor said: "The 10,000 extra students simply restored the flexibility that was removed when the tolerance band was taken away."

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