Preservation of this national asset must be your top priority

To help the new universities secretary, Steve Smith outlines the issues vital to the continued health of UK higher education

May 13, 2010




Dear Secretary of State,

I am writing this open letter on election night, partly to meet a deadline but mainly because what I will say is best said without knowing which party you will belong to, or even who will make up the government.

As you will have a lot on your desk, I will be brief. UK higher education is a major success story for the country, and is essential, not optional, to our future prosperity and success. Whatever your party wants to do in government, you will not be able to achieve it without our sector and its contributions to the future skills base and the science base, its role as the primary mechanism for promoting social mobility, and its vital work supporting the UK's position in the world. From 1997 to 2010, the Labour government invested heavily in higher education; now we face the first cuts to budgets for 13 years and the prospect of sharp cuts to public expenditure. According to some estimates, public spending will not rise in real terms for eight years, a situation that is far worse than anything seen for half a century.

Although you would expect Universities UK to lobby strongly for protection from spending cuts (not simply because they harm our sector, but because they will also prevent you from fulfilling many manifesto promises), and indeed we will do so constantly over the coming months, I want instead to stress some issues that together will determine the key features of the higher education landscape, whatever the level of public funding.

The Browne review

No issue is more important than ensuring that the recommendations made by Lord Browne's review are implemented in full. This genuinely independent review is looking not just at student finance but also at the sector's financial sustainability. We expect that it will deliver proposals that offer a way for higher education to grow stronger despite worsening public finances. But to ensure this outcome, the recommendations must be implemented in their entirety. UUK fears that the report will be published amid a bruising public spending review, and when the politics of the new Parliament make some recommendations off limits.

An even greater fear is that the review will be seen as solving the question of how to fund universities while reducing public spending. The double whammy would be to have public spending cuts forced on the sector by MPs who think that the review's proposals will generate substitute funds, only for those proposals to prove unacceptable to Parliament.

The science ring fence

Before the general election, only one party promised to respect the science ring fence and to raise science funding in real terms. However tempting it may be to reduce public funding of science, we believe that such a move would be catastrophic for the UK. Future global economic success will be built on a knowledge economy, one fuelled by the high-level skills and the fundamental and applied research that only universities can generate. Any cut in the science budget harms UK competitiveness.

Student demand and funds for teaching

Public spending on higher education should not be cut, for to do so would undermine the ability of institutions to improve student participation and the student experience. But there is a much more important political principle involved here - namely the commitment of all parties to increasing social mobility and cohesion and to building a society based on social justice. Higher education is the most productive way of achieving these goals. We urge you to fight to ensure that any qualified student (regardless of mode of study) can progress to higher education without reducing the current level of funding per student.

Internationalisation

The key priority here is to sort out the policy regarding the admission of international students and staff to UK higher education. This is not simply about ensuring that international students can enter the country; it is more fundamentally about the kind of international relationships we hope to promote. The future success of our higher education system is intimately related to the easy movement of students and staff between the leading knowledge economies of the world.

I conclude by warning you off accepting too readily the bullish language of marketisation, of the seeming attractions of replacing public providers with private ones, and even of the desirability of allowing market failure in higher education.

In all you do, please think of the effects of such policies on the students, staff and alumni of institutions, and of the reputational effects for the UK sector as a whole. That sector is a truly great national asset. Please, for all our sakes, do all you can to make it stronger when you leave office than it is today.

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