Labour MPs turn on the chancellor

June 9, 2000

Members of the education select committee have condemned Treasury plans for substantial cuts to university spending in the week in which the government promised "opportunity for all".

Gordon Marsden, Labour MP for Blackpool South, who sits on the committee, described the rumoured cuts as "deeply disturbing". He said: "If the committee is concerned about access, it is going to look a bit rum if Gordon Brown goes ahead with a 3 per cent cut in unit funding. The chancellor should tell his mandarins to keep the money where his mouth has been."

Michael Foster, Labour MP for Worcester, who also sits on the committee, said: "To widen access and increase the participation of those who are under-represented in higher education will demand extra funding. It could be undermined if core funding is cut."

Prime minister Tony Blair had earlier entered the access debate, saying:

"Gordon Brown and I believe passionately in extending opportunity for all. But none of us will have any truck with old-fashioned egalitarianism that levels down. We are unashamed supporters of excellence. But we need to give far more of our kids a shot at it."

Commenting on Mr Blair's words, Mr Marsden said: "We mustn't start off from cuts in unit funding. For excellence, we must scrutinise the spending and get it through to teaching and staff."

David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "We need far more opportunity for excellence in education. Cutting the funding would push in the opposite direction. We need more money for excellence to expand, and some of that money will have to go to those universities that have been slammed for not taking enough students from state schools."

The cuts are being considered by the Treasury as it finalises its public-spending commitments up to 2004. With tuition-fee income included, the rumoured cuts would double those currently endured by the sector. Under the plans, the government would cut the unit of funding while expanding higher education. It has signalled that it wants half of all young people to go into higher education by 2010.

Mr Marsden said: "There is a general concern that if we are going to expand access to higher education in the way that we are committed to doing, then obviously we have to increase the funding or get more economies out of the current system. The argument is that the majority of efficiencies that can be squeezed out have been. Beyond that, you have to either call a halt to the cuts in unit funding or find ways of levering in more money."

Shadow education secretary Theresa May accused the government of giving the impression that more money was going into higher education than is actually the case.

She said: "There is a real problem that universities are facing on the pay and conditions of staff, and it is greater than the government will admit. The point has come where it is difficult to squeeze higher education any further."

Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman, said: "After years and years of cuts, the sector won't stand for any more. There is a conspiracy in Labour circles not to talk about student and university finances and the pay and conditions of staff."

Reform of the university admissions system is also on the cards as part of the "opportunity for all" agenda. The reform was proposed by Peter Lampl's Sutton Trust report on widening access, published this week.

Moving exams to before Easter, leaving pupils to work on personal development projects and key skills during the summer, would allow universities to consider applicants after they had got their A-level results, according to Graham Lane, who chairs the Local Government Association's education committee.

The LGA is reviewing the structure of the school year and will report next month. Mr Lane said: "We are looking at whether the exam period could come earlier. I hope for quite radical changes as a result of this review."

Previous attempts to introduce a post-qualification admissions system have foundered due to disagreements over who should change: the schools, the examination boards or the universities and colleges.

A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service said: "We anticipate that post-qualification admissions will be looked at again. Applicants with exam results can make better-informed choices and it would make the admissions system easier to manage."

Oxford pilots admissions tests, Elite graduates earn more, page 3; In the news, page 11; Leader, page18; Letters, page.

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