Ministers hang tough on cuts as v-cs regret elite's 'hyperbole'

January 28, 2010

There are signs of growing divisions within the sector over its fragmented response to the funding cuts announced by the Government.

This week, ministers moved to consolidate their position, giving short shrift to claims that the proposed cuts would irreparably damage the sector.

Universities were warned to expect no increase in their income from the state for several years and told that tough times could "focus minds" on diversifying their income.

The stern stance taken by Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary, and David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, follows the claim by the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities that budget cuts of up to £2.5 billion could "bring the sector to its knees".

Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, has also warned that institutions may have to close hundreds of courses.

This week, he appealed to Lord Mandelson to guarantee that there would be no more cuts, and that those already announced did not constitute a baseline reduction.

Privately, some vice-chancellors have expressed surprise about the strength of the Russell Group's comments, describing them as "totally over the top" and "hyperbolic".

One senior sector source said the group had been "foolish" to introduce the £2.5 billion figure when the cuts announced to date amounted to £915 million.

"The sector shouldn't be bandying its own numbers around," he said. "Once a figure gets mentioned it builds its own momentum. The Treasury can now say: 'We'll cut by £1.5 billion or £2 billion and that's smaller than the figure originally announced as bringing the sector to its knees.'?"

Times Higher Education understands that some Russell Group members were not warned in advance of the statement by Wendy Piatt, the group's director-general, and Michael Arthur, its chairman, and expressed their disapproval.

The Government's resolve to institute cuts appeared to harden this week.

Writing in Policy Review magazine, Mr Lammy dismissed the Russell Group claims as alarmist.

"Anyone who has followed recent media coverage of university funding could be forgiven for thinking that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had been spotted galloping down Whitehall in search of anyone in a mortar board," he says.

He adds: "It will be a good few years before universities can expect to see any really significant upturn in their income from the public purse."

The minister tells universities they should not accept smaller incomes as "the price of dependence on the taxpayer", nor should they bank on a large increase in tuition fees. Instead, he calls on them to diversify their income, suggesting that the potential for raising private investment "is far from being fulfilled".

He also recommends "radically different" modes of teaching: "I would certainly envisage some universities choosing to concentrate on off-campus learning."

Mr Lammy's comments came on the heels of remarks by Lord Mandelson in the House of Lords last week, when he said that cuts could "focus minds on teaching and research excellence, and on new ways of delivering higher education".

In a second piece in Policy Review, David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Universities Secretary, admits that cuts will occur whoever wins the next election.

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