Fees indecision could cause universities to sink, science adviser says

Institutions could go ‘bankrupt’ and STEM subjects falter as politicians put off debate, Zoë Corbyn hears

February 12, 2009

Universities risk going “bankrupt” because of political inertia in deciding on the future level of undergraduate tuition fees, the Government’s director-general for science and research has said.

Delivering a “thought piece” on how to develop the agenda for science and technology subjects at the Commonwealth Club this week, Adrian Smith drew breath before he approached what he said was a “trickier subject”.

Then he said: “The higher education system is quite expensive to run, and, as you will know, one way of getting additional money into the system has been through student fees. A major debate that ought to have taken place around about now is whether the current cap on student fees of £3,000 should have been raised or changed.

“That debate has been kicked into touch until after the [general] election because neither party wanted to touch it. In the meantime, universities are going bankrupt because they don’t have enough money.”

He pointed out that such a climate caused particular problems for STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) because they were expensive to deliver.

Reflecting on the situation facing higher education, he said, there was an issue about whether “sooner or later” the UK had to “abandon the complete market-forces, student-demand-led model of higher education”.

Professor Smith said: “[Do we say] actually ‘some things are too important just to be left to student demand [and] other things are not so important that they should be allowed to expand hugely because kids happen to want to do those subjects’? This is quite heavy stuff… how do we design the future and the financial sustainability of the higher education system? Let’s assume that at the heart of that there is some subset of the STEM subjects that one regards as vital – how does one actually sustain them?”

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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