Defenders of the academy? More like the status quo, says Lord Mandelson

First Secretary dismisses claims that funding cuts will bring sector 'to its knees'. John Morgan reports

February 18, 2010

Lord Mandelson has accused some academics of using the battle over funding cuts as an excuse for "resistance to any form of change".

The First Secretary mounted a strong defence of government policy on university funding when he spoke at the Lord Dearing memorial conference on "The Future of Higher Education", hosted by the University of Nottingham in association with Times Higher Education on 11 February.

The peer also dismissed the claims made by the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities that higher education would be brought "to its knees" by the cuts announced by the Government, and he hinted that the sector would not face further significant cuts in this year's Budget.

Answering questions after his speech, Lord Mandelson said: "I have heard some who have joined the debate - if you can call it that - about public funding making claims about lost jobs and redundancies, which under closer examination are not to do with spending cuts, but with reform."

The peer said that fears of restructuring, "oftentimes without redundancies at all", motivated some of the critics, who were "people who don't like change".

"They don't want reforms, they think university teachers and lecturers have a right to be set in aspic in what they do and how they work," he added.

Lord Mandelson said that some academics were "using the argument about spending reductions as a screen or cloak behind which resistance to any sort of change can be conducted".

"We need to be a little bit more sceptical and discriminating in how we treat some of the arguments being made," he argued.

"More often than not, in my view, they are not about the Government's spending reductions, they are about people who simply want to maintain the status quo, regardless of the best use of resources, regardless of the best way of organising what universities have to offer, and regardless of the needs of present and future students."

Lord Mandelson directly countered the claims made by Michael Arthur and Wendy Piatt, the chair and the director-general of the Russell Group respectively, in his keynote speech.

"Does a less than 5 per cent reduction in public support for universities reverse a decade of rapidly rising investment, or leave our best institutions on their knees?" he asked.

"I don't believe by any stretch of the imagination that it does."

He insisted that higher education - which will lose £915 million in funding between 2010 and 2013 - was not being singled out for cuts.

"The lead times for higher education funding cycles mean that we wanted to set out at this early stage, ahead of other areas, where we expect savings to be made," he said.

Tough but fair

Asked by THE whether there would be a "double whammy" of further cuts to the sector in the Budget, Lord Mandelson said he was "a Universities Secretary who knows what's reasonable and what's not, who knows what's fair and what's not".

He added that "long-term planning is essential, not a launch into excessive further cuts".

The First Secretary said retrenchment could "focus minds in two ways", recommending that universities generate "additional business income" and explore alternative modes of study.

"Part-time degrees and shorter and more intensive courses offer the potential to lower student support costs, use resources more intensively and improve productivity," he said.

He also noted the Government's progress in widening participation.

"About 60 per cent of British 16- and 17-year-olds now see themselves as likely to go on to university," he said. "It is hard to overstate the revolution that this represents in social attitudes."

And there was praise for Lord Dearing, whose 1997 report, Higher Education in the Learning Society, paved the way for tuition fees and the widening-participation agenda.

Lord Mandelson said: "Ron Dearing's core conviction, which I share, was that higher learning is the foundation of a civilised society, an expression of the value of knowledge, for every sake, including its own."

This sharply contrasted with the language used by Charles Clarke, the former Education Secretary, who once said when discussing universities that "education for its own sake is a bit dodgy".

Asked by THE whether he was deliberately rebutting the statement of a previous minister, Lord Mandelson said: "No, it's just what I believe. I don't know what previous ministers said - I think I was away at the time.

"I am Universities Secretary so I will say what I think."

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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