Celtic cuts create states of anxiety

Delays over funding details leave Scots in dark as Welsh face competitive gap. Hannah Fearn writes

November 25, 2010

More than £114 million has been cut from the Scottish and Welsh higher education budgets, raising fears about the future competitiveness of both countries.

Last week, John Swinney, Scottish Cabinet secretary for finance, unveiled a one-year Budget, a tactic that allows the Scottish National Party to delay full disclosure of planned cuts to public expenditure until after the next Scottish Parliamentary elections in May 2011. But the move has left universities worrying about their financial planning.

The settlement sees the Scottish Funding Council's total income drop from £1.79 billion to £1.57 billion. Within that, the block grant for universities will drop from £989 million to £926 million.

The SFC will not meet until 10 December to decide how the funds will be allocated to universities. However, it has promised to protect funding for teaching and research and retain the number of student places - leaving many funded on a fees-only basis.

Allocation letters are expected to be sent out to universities before Christmas.

The SFC said it would "do all it can to provide the sector with stability and certainty over the allocation of funding", despite being left in the dark in terms of accounting for the last four months of the next academic year.

Tony Axon, research officer at the University and College Union Scotland, said the SFC faces a certain amount of "guesswork" about future funding.

"I'm slightly concerned that there is a bit of frontloading going on just before an election to paint the best picture possible. The next two years might (reveal) even deeper cuts," he said.

Universities Scotland said the Budget leaves universities facing a cut of up to 7 per cent in cash terms and 12 per cent including capital.

"Cuts at this level cannot be sustained beyond next year without serious damage to universities' contribution to Scotland's economy and society," said Bernard King, Universities Scotland's convener.

One change that was welcomed was a reduction to the SFC's Horizon Fund, which involves a small committee deciding how cash for knowledge exchange is distributed.

Mr Axon said this was indicative of a return to "core principles" in funding priorities.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Assembly Budget, also published last week, revealed that universities will face a £51 million cut over the next three years. The Budget will not be finalised until January and universities cannot expect a grant letter until the spring.

Amanda Wilkinson, director of Higher Education Wales, said the scale of the cuts could affect universities' ability to "deliver key outcomes for Wales".

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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