Universities will have to dance to the same “value for money” tune regardless of which party is in power after the general election, according to the executive director of the 1994 Group of small research-intensive universities.
In a speech to a National Union of Students’ conference in Manchester last week, Paul Marshall predicted that the sector would face a 15 per cent funding cut whether Labour or the Conservatives rule.
The five years following the election will be “the most exciting, dramatic and completely terrifying years higher education has known for at least 30 years”, he said.
“So close are the two parties that I believe the system that will exist in 2015 will be largely the same no matter which one wins. For higher education, the theme will be value for money.”
The sector will be expected to carry out improvements and “radical redesigns” against a backdrop of 15 per cent cuts in the first three years of the next Parliament, he warned.
He predicted that the new government would “push forward with a system of credit accumulation and transfer, break down barriers between full-time and part-time study, raise the status of further education, and genuinely provide access to higher education for all”.
At the same time, ministers will redirect existing teaching resources towards subject areas they think will provide the greatest returns to UK plc, he added.
Phil Harding, chairman of the British Universities Finance Directors Group and finance director at City University London, agreed.
He told Times Higher Education that City’s financial forecasts assumed 10 per cent cuts over two years.
Mere “good housekeeping” and higher numbers of international students would be insufficient to cope with these cuts, he added.
Mr Harding said that finance directors throughout the sector were paying more attention to broader issues of financial sustainability.
“They’re looking harder at programmes’ relative levels of financial performance,” he said.
He suggested that the sector was likely to see an overall reduction in the variety of taught courses on offer, as universities concentrate their efforts on the most profitable areas and scrap cross-subsidies.
“There’s a real risk to institutional diversity. It will be very interesting to see the extent to which the next government intervenes to protect that diversity and prevent institutions withdrawing wholesale from areas that don’t make money.”
He said he believed that the sector would see more state intervention, even if the Conservatives are in control.