Cut ‘failed’ ex-poly humanities departments, says peer

Opinions divided in Lords debate on higher education budget cuts. Melanie Newman reports

January 17, 2010

Humanities departments in former polytechnics should bear the brunt of funding cuts to higher education, the House of Lords heard this week.

In a debate on reductions in higher education spending, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, representing the UK Independence Party (UKIP), said: “Has it not been clear for years that the ‘poly’ bit of the polytechnic experiment has failed, while the former technical departments often remain excellent? Therefore, is not one obvious place to look for cuts the humanities departments of the former polytechnics?”

Labour peer and deputy chief whip Lord Davies of Oldham defended the newer universities, telling Lord Pearson to “examine the relationship between the courses that are provided and the employment prospects of those who graduate from those universities”. He added: “Certain of… the former polytechnics and new universities have a very good record in that respect.”

The debate followed claims by the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities that the £900 million worth of cuts to the higher education budget announced before Christmas could “bring the sector to its knees” within six months. In the same week, the vice-chancellor of Durham University, Chris Higgins, called for “different units of resource” for different types of university, a concentration of funds for the top institutions, and said that universities “that are not doing anything very well” should be allowed to close.

“We will lose the excellence of the sector if we reduce quality to the lowest common denominator,” he said.

Independent crossbencher Baroness Howe of Idlicote, a former governor of the London School of Economics, called the Lords debate to ask the Government to respond to the claims. “How can the Government be confident that the UK’s leading research-intensive universities – indeed, the UK’s world-leading research base – can continue to thrive in the face of what one must acknowledge is a very sharp reduction?” she asked.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that an extra £1.6 billion of cuts to the science and university budgets will be needed to achieve ministers’ targets of halving the national debt by 2013.

For the Liberal Democrats, Baroness Garden of Frognal, vice chairman of the Oxford University Society for alumni, asked: “Can the minister say how such cuts would impact government aspirations for increasing take-up in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the much-valued STEM subjects?”

Responding, Lord Davies said the Russell Group’s comments “do no justice either to the greatly increased funding that we have provided for higher education or to universities’ own underlying strength”. The cuts were against a background of a 25 per cent increase in spending on universities since 1997, he argued. He dismissed the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ position as “conjecture”.

Crossbencher Lord Hannay of Chiswick, pro-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, criticised Lord Davies’ reply as “pretty unconvincing” at the debate on 14 January. He said: “Although he is correct to say that additional resources were provided between 1997 and last year, the implication must be that, if these cuts can be carried out without severe damage to universities, the Government have been paying the universities far too much taxpayers’ money.”

But Labour peer Lord Filkin suggested the Russell Group’s complaints were mere special pleading. “Does my noble friend agree that everybody who is in receipt of government funding has to face the same reality as governments at this time?” he asked. “They must seriously think how they can get much more value out of what they receive and face up to the need to find economies.”

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