No political party has demonstrated a long-term policy that will ensure that the UK university sector remains one of the strongest in the world, the president and provost of University College London has said.
Michael Arthur told a conference in London that his “biggest fear” regarding higher education was that the sector “remained in the ‘too toxic politically’ bracket, and that we’re not appropriately looked after in terms of thinking through the long-term future and funding of higher education”.
Speaking ahead of the 7 May general election, Professor Arthur said that even if funding and fees stayed at their current levels, universities were in “quite a bit of trouble”.
“Our costs escalate each year, and our income is not escalating,” he said. “There is not a single party that has demonstrated to my satisfaction that it has thought through the long-term consequences of how it is going to cope with funding higher education at a level that allows us to remain internationally competitive.”
He added that although the UK had arguably “the best [higher education] system in the world at the moment”, it would not stay that way if it was not looked after.
Illustrating the financial pressures on universities, he described how institutions would struggle if investment were to be kept at current levels.
A flat cash settlement on the science budget equated to a “6 per cent cut per annum”, because research costs were rising, he said, while “flat £9,000 fees [mean] at least a 3, possibly 4, per cent cut [to universities] per annum. That’s compounded now over three, four years, and is beginning to bite. It is beginning to hurt the budgetary picture across the sector.”
The squeeze, he said, was felt most acutely by Russell Group institutions because “the gap in research costs versus research funding is growing and growing and growing”.
Professor Arthur, speaking at a student experience seminar before the Whatuni Student Choice Awards last month, also said that his biggest hope was that the UK remained in the European Union. His comments came after remarks by Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, on the risks to research funding of a British exit from the EU.
“I think it would be unbelievably retrograde to withdraw [from the EU],” Professor Arthur said.
“It would cause problems for us with all of our European colleagues, and it would cause huge problems for recruiting students from around Europe, who…add a huge amount to the culture of our universities. And, of course, there is also EU [research] funding.”