Lobbying by v-cs 'reduced budget cuts' and protected student numbers

December 16, 2010

The massive cut to the teaching budget could have been even greater, were it not for lobbying by vice-chancellors, because many in the coalition government believe there are "too many" students and universities, according to the president of Universities UK.

Steve Smith said that although David Willetts, the universities and science minister, personally believed in widening participation, some of Mr Willetts' colleagues had a "strong view" that there should be a retrenchment on student numbers.

He told Times Higher Education that against that background, UUK had not taken its "eye off the ball", but had fought hard to keep the teaching cuts below £3 billion while attempting to secure an alternative source of funding.

He was defending the stance taken by UUK as tensions reached boiling point among vice-chancellors ahead of the House of Commons vote that paved the way for tuition fees to rise to as much as £9,000 a year, starting in 2012-13.

In the days leading up to the 9 December vote, the split among UUK members was clear after rival letters - the first urging MPs to back the proposals, the second asking them to oppose them - appeared in a national newspaper, signed by different sets of vice-chancellors.

However, Professor Smith said he had "no regrets" about UUK's response to the Browne Review.

The "core of his argument" on the cuts was that it was impossible to change the baseline reduction in funding set out in the Comprehensive Spending Review, he said.

If the 9 December vote had failed, student numbers and the teaching unit of resource would have been slashed instead, he argued, and this would have damaged the very universities whose vice-chancellors were complaining about UUK's work.

"Some of them think the CSR is fightable but it is a done deal as far as we can honestly see," Professor Smith said. He added that on the Friday before the CSR announcement he understood that £3.5 billion was to be sliced from the higher education budget.

"A lot of people in the government think there are too many students and too many universities - (although) not David Willetts at all; he believes in increasing participation. But in that situation the teaching budget was always something they were looking at, so I don't think we took our eye off the ball.

"I think we pulled back more on the (teaching) budget than we did on the research budget. I can't prove that, but from where I sit I think the cut in the higher education budget was going to be greater. I was certainly led to believe that it was going to be greater than £2.9 billion," Professor Smith said.

"In all of the noise", he noted, no one had proposed a workable alternative to the Browne Review to replace the lost funding. He said his personal opinion was that there should be a "significant public contribution" to universities.

"Privately, I actually think my taxation should go towards supporting higher education. But whether you like it or not, this coalition government has decided to take £2.9 billion out and our job as leaders of institutions is to get that money back in," he said.

The University of Exeter vice-chancellor said he did feel he should "take responsibility" for failing to properly explain the progressive elements of the new system.

He said he felt there needed to be a change in the way repayments were explained to graduates.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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