Shadow ministers criticise 'drip, drip, drip' of reductions at THE debate, Melanie Newman writes
The thorny issues of university funding cuts and their impact on the student experience were thrashed out when the higher education spokesmen for the three main political parties went head to head last week.
The Times Higher Education debate at the Royal Geographical Society was attended by David Lammy, Higher Education Minister, David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Universities Secretary, and Stephen Williams, their Liberal Democrat counterpart.
The trio challenged each other on policy issues and answered questions from the audience and those submitted via Twitter.
The shadow ministers attacked Mr Lammy over what they described as Labour's incoherent and opaque message on spending cuts.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has declined to clarify which parts of the sector will bear the brunt of the £600 million cut to funding for higher education, research and science announced in the pre-Budget report for 2011-13.
Mr Willetts said it was "incredibly hard" to work out the public expenditure position, adding that universities were entitled to an "honest statement" on the matter.
He suggested that the sector had been caught in the middle of "political positioning" between Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, who believes that the UK should spend its way out of recession, and Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary, who advocates cuts.
"Lord Mandelson has offered up his department like a sacred cow to show he means it," Mr Willetts said.
He promised that if the Tories were elected, they would "level with universities" rather than offer a "drip, drip, drip" of successive retrenchment announcements.
Mr Williams criticised Labour for failing to conduct a Comprehensive Spending Review, and said that higher education had not been treated equitably compared with other sectors.
The Lib Dems were not in a position to pledge to reverse Labour's cuts because they did not know where the axe would fall, he said.
"But I'm clear that in the long run it would be bonkers for this country not to invest more in higher education," Mr Williams added.
Mr Lammy replied that the uncertain position of the UK's economy meant that precise forecasts about public spending were difficult.
"Our responsibility is to ensure that we get to an upturn as soon as possible," he said.
He claimed that the Tories were for "cutting now and damaging the economy", and accused Mr Willetts of "salivating" over the prospect of cuts 18 months ago.
Meanwhile, Universities UK is reminding universities of their potential influence over marginal seats in the general election.
Nicola Dandridge, UUK chief executive, told the sector last week to "make sure that the next Parliament understands the full picture of modern higher education".
Speaking at a seminar on preparations for the election, she said: "Many universities are located in key battleground constituencies. Almost half of the parliamentary seats containing our members are marginals."
INSTITUTIONAL BIAS: LABOUR PEER QUESTIONS NEED FOR UNIVERSITIES
The structure of higher education needed changing even before the current funding problems hit, a former Labour education secretary has said.
In a debate in the House of Lords, Baroness Morris of Yardley questioned whether degrees needed to take place "at institutions called universities", and asked why higher and further education were seen as separate sectors.
Universities did not "have an adequate way" of funding themselves even before the recent cuts, she added.
"If you look elsewhere in the education system, be it early years, schools or parts of further education, they have all had to fundamentally change how they do their jobs and get their money."
Universities had not been through the same modernising process, she argued.
Lord Smith of Clifton also called for radical change.
The Liberal Democrat peer, who advocated the "regionalisation" of higher education, said: "Academic staff should teach on more than one campus; a peripatetic element would preserve a greater range of disciplines at a cheaper cost."
Joining other contributors, Lord Patten of Barnes, Conservative peer and chancellor of the University of Oxford, criticised recent cuts to the higher education budget.
He said it was impossible to give students "what purports to be the same university experience in the same institutions and at the same time defend a world-class research base".
He called on the Government to choose between the two.
The debate on 25 February was called by Lord Baker of Dorking, former Conservative Party chairman, who said: "The best advice for all universities is: put not your trust in governments for funding; they always let you down; they will never give you enough, not even a Conservative government."
At a meeting of the National Conference of University Professors in London on 24 February, Lib Dem peer Baroness Garden of Frognal suggested that universities should offer staff the chance to spend half the year teaching and half doing research.
She advocated a greater diversity of provision for students and bemoaned the fact that alternative models of higher education were "still seen as second best to the elite, three-year, full-time 'gold standard' degree offered by the Russell Group".