Low-cost subjects 'should survive the loss of grants'

Lord Browne dismisses fears by insisting flexibility will maintain provision. Simon Baker talks to him

October 14, 2010

Lord Browne has insisted that his panel's proposal to remove teaching grants from lower-cost subjects such as arts, humanities and social sciences would not lead to the disciplines becoming the preserve of elite institutions.

The suggestion has led to warnings that some universities could axe the subjects altogether and raised the prospect of certain specialist institutions, such as the London School of Economics, in effect being privatised in terms of teaching.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Lord Browne said focusing funding on expensive areas such as clinical medicine and science was "fair and proper" but other subjects should not suffer. The independent review's report states that there should be only two categories of courses that attract money from the funding council - clinical training programmes such as medicine and "priority" subjects including engineering.

Teaching grants for other subjects, including most that come under bands C and D of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's cost categories, would be "completely removed", Lord Browne said.

Anna Vignoles, deputy director of the Centre for the Economics of Education, said such a move - combined with a liberated market on fees and numbers - would drive efficiency and innovation but could also lead to some teaching-focused universities ditching certain subjects.

She said many could struggle to charge fees high enough to break even on such courses, while elite universities would be able to cross-subsidise from research income.

Professor Vignoles said: "Rationally, at the moment the government is subsidising courses that appear to have very little in market value, (so) reducing that subsidy or taking it away may make sense from an economic perspective.

"But one problem is we may still want history graduates even if there isn't a good market return, and if you take away all the subsidy you're relying on institutions themselves cross-subsidising."

An open framework

However, Lord Browne insisted that "with a bit of efficiency and a bit of work" there would continue to be wide provision of such courses, and he stressed that the proposed framework was flexible and would allow the government to fund them later if it wanted.

"The fee levels, even keeping today's level constant, probably provide enough revenue to teach those subjects but, again with a bit of efficiency and a bit of work, I am sure they can all be kept there," he told THE.

"The purpose is not to reduce emphasis on one subject or the other. That is why we've kept the framework open."

He added: "There is a variety of very expensive subjects that require subvention from the government to teach and that, I think, is fair, it's right and proper.

"If we took it away, the cost of getting a degree to be a doctor, a physician, here would be very expensive - disproportionately expensive - and would probably bias people against studying in that area."

When asked if the proposal to cut funding to such a large swathe of subjects was linked to the coalition government's spending review, he said: "Not really. Our report is much more informed by sustainability. The government can always choose to recycle money back into the sector from time to time."

On whether there was a moral argument for funding all subjects, he said: "The moral question is giving people choice, informed choice."

However, the British Academy said it viewed "with alarm" the prospect of cuts to humanities and social sciences.

Alasdair Smith, former vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, added that the focus on science subjects was "misguided".

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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