Government axemen on the lookout for targets

Universities UK head is ‘bluntly’ quizzed over where cuts should be made. Zoë Corbyn reports

November 28, 2009

The head of Universities UK has confirmed that the Government has been “extremely blunt” with him in preparing the ground for higher education funding cuts.

Steve Smith, president of UUK, said that he had been asked about where in the sector it was advisable for cuts to be made, reductions required as a result of the recession.

“We are being asked some very blunt questions in our role as the sector’s representative body,” he said.

“We are asked – extremely bluntly in meetings – how the sector would cope with x, y and z levels of cuts.”

Speaking at the launch of a new UUK publication, Securing world-class research in UK universities: exploring the impact of block grant funding, he told an audience at the Royal Society in London that UUK was making the argument that investment should be maintained.

“We are in for a hell of a fight,” he said, adding that the body had to battle to maintain the budget while also being realistic.

“Ideally [we want] more investment… but if not, then we are in the business of trying to ensure that as little damage is done to the higher education sector as possible.”

Citing 12 years of growing budgets for universities, he said that few vice-chancellors had been involved in running a university in a time of economic decline.

The cost to the country of the Government not maintaining its investment in higher education would be “absolutely catastrophic”, he added.

The pre-Budget report on 9 December is expected to provide hints as to where cuts will fall, but it will not be until the next Comprehensive Spending Review, setting out spending plans for 2011-12 to 2013-14, that the situation will become clear. The date of the review has not been announced.

It is also understood that should the Conservatives win the next general election, likely to take place in May 2010, they will call an emergency Budget to implement public spending cuts.

Professor Smith also revealed that UUK supported the notion that 20 per cent of university departments’ overall scores for research quality in the forthcoming research excellence framework should be based on economic or social “impact”.

Under current plans for the REF, which will replace the research assessment exercise in distributing nearly £2 billion in quality-related research funding annually, it has been proposed that impact will be given a 25 per cent weighting, but UUK believes this is too high as the measure is untested.

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