Chancellor's pre-hustings STEM largesse steals the Conservatives' thunder

April 1, 2010

Universities in England have welcomed a Budget pledge to fund up to 20,000 additional student places in science and technology subjects next year, but the move has reignited debate about the government's policy of favouring so-called STEM subjects over others.

Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer, pledged £305 million for universities in his Budget speech last week.

The sum includes £250 million for the extra places in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, including 5,000 on part-time degrees and 5,000 on foundation courses.

The government will also spend £20 million on pilot schemes to develop shared services between universities, and £25 million on an "enterprise fund" to support early stage commercial activities such as spin-offs.

A further £10 million to £12 million will be added to the enterprise fund from private sources.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is set to make savings of £300 million, which may help fund the moves.

The Budget also axed a plan to allow graduates a two-year "holiday" on the repayment of student loans. Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, which represents new universities, said the Treasury would be £117 million better off for each cohort of full-time students now that the option to defer loan repayments had been removed.

"This is therefore an eminently sensible way of funding the costs of 20,000 additional students, but it will also be helpful in relation to the funding of student support," she said.

Mr Darling trumped a key Conservative Party policy for higher education: the provision of 10,000 extra places for 2010-11, to be funded by the early repayment of student loans.

Universities UK said the Budget was "a tremendous outcome for the sector and a sound investment in the UK's knowledge economy".

However, many in the sector fear that higher education will face further cuts in the months after the general election, when an emergency Budget is likely to be announced by whichever party wins.

One professor of politics, who asked not to be named, said: "It was a clever bit of politics, and one which cheered the Labour benches, but it ducked entirely the sort of tough decisions that are going to be made about public spending over the next couple of years.

"In anything other than an election year, a Budget like that would have been met with derision."

Unlike the 10,000 additional student places announced by the government last July, this set of 20,000 will be fully funded, including student-support costs.

Universities will receive full funding for the first year of each student's three-year course in 2010-11: however, they will not be able to hold back funds to pay for the following two years.

Instead, they will be expected to use the cash to put in place "efficiency savings", which will allow them to fund the remaining two years' tuition.

One vice-chancellor told Times Higher Education that he was unclear how this policy would be policed.

Subject associations in the arts and humanities also welcomed the extra places, but criticised the decision to restrict them to those studying STEM subjects.

John Holmwood, professor in sociology at the University of Nottingham and chairman of the Heads and Professors of Sociology Group, said the increase in STEM places could lead to some universities reducing their offers to students taking such courses.

To maintain their league table positions, they may then increase the grades required for arts and humanities degrees, he suggested.

David Maguire, pro vice-chancellor (corporate development) at Birmingham City University, added: "There's not a lot of support for the cultural and creative industries in this Budget."

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