Russell Group head grilled by MPs over claim cuts would set sector back 800 years

Michael Arthur stood firm on his view the UK would be unable to maintain its international competitiveness if finances are slashed. Zoë Corbyn reports

February 10, 2010

The head of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities has defended his claim that impending cuts would “bring the sector to its knees” in the face of critical questioning by MPs.

Michael Arthur was grilled by the House of Commons Science and Technology committee today about an article he wrote for a national newspaper last month in which he said that while it had taken “more than 800 years to create one of the world’s greatest education systems” it looked like “it will take just six months to bring it to its knees”.

Phil Willis, the committee chairman, said: “Do you really feel that his has been a responsible response after what has been a decade of investment?

“Do you genuinely believe that the cuts, which would not even take us back to 1997 [levels of funding], would actually take us back 800 years? … You are making assumptions which have no basis whatsoever and I want to know why.”

Professor Arthur, who is vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, told the panel of MPs that his statement was based on figures from departmental officials (the sector is currently facing a cut of about £1 billion over three years), a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (which warned of additional 6 per cent year-on-year cuts over the next three years), and a newspaper interview with Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, which raised concerns about the potential scale of future cuts.

“It is responsible to point out and make it clear to politicians and the public that if those cuts occur at that level it will have a devastating effect on our ability to perform,” he said.

He added that the wording in his article was “not quite the same” as saying the cuts would take the sector back 800 years.

“I said that it would severely impair our international competitiveness and I believe that,” he said.

The evidence session was conducted as part of an inquiry being held by the committee into the impact of spending cuts on science and scientific research.

Professor Arthur warned that “every science department” in the country was “on the edge” financially.

Also giving evidence was Steve Smith, chair of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, along with the heads of other mission groups.

The vice-chancellors stressed to the committee the importance of knowing where the Government planned to direct £600 million in cuts announced in the pre-Budget report.

The money is to be taken from the higher education and research budgets, but the Government has not said how it will be distributed.

The vice-chancellors told the MPs that they needed this detail for planning purposes.

Professor Smith said cuts made thus far were “absorbable” but said he was “very concerned” that the extra £600 million reduction announced in December “risked damaging” the sector.

Paul Wellings, chair of the 1994 Group of small research-intensive universities and vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, said that if universities were forced to close departments as a result of the cuts, politicians should “get out of the way” and allow them to do so without interference.

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