Sector stands by for battles over cuts, fees and Europe

Universities’ lobbying of the new Conservative government will focus on funding and continuing EU membership

May 14, 2015


Source: Jess Hurd/Report Digital

Focus on fees: it is widely predicted that the £9K fee cap will be lifted

Tuition fees are likely to rise above £9,000 to accompany spending cuts under the new Conservative government, senior figures in the sector have suggested, as universities also prepare a “powerful” public campaign to stay in the European Union.

The Tories’ election triumph will set in motion lobbying efforts by the sector on key issues including Europe and university funding, given that the party is committed to £30 billion in cuts. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which includes research and higher education, is a non-protected department.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said that one of the group’s priorities would be government funding because of the possibility that there “may be an emergency budget preceding a broader spending review later in the year”.

That would raise “some pretty urgent questions about the impact on the BIS budget”, including research funding as a “top priority”, she told Times Higher Education.

Within BIS, there could be pressure to prune the research budget or to cut the remaining areas of direct public funding for university teaching (widening participation and high-cost subjects).

Raise the roof

Do the looming cuts to the BIS budget make it likely that a rise in fees might accompany them?

“Yes, I think that there may be [a rise],” Ms Dandridge said. “I think it’s something that we will be making explicit when we publish the work of our student funding panel…we’re still crafting our position on that.”

There is “real pressure on the fee cap”, but, Ms Dandridge said, there is also a question of “whether there are any other mechanisms for funding to flow through to cover additional teaching costs and rising teaching costs”.

William Hague, the former Tory leader, said before the election that a rise in fees in the next Parliament had not been ruled out.

And Vince Cable, the former Liberal Democrat business secretary who lost his seat at the general election, had previously suggested that there would be consequences for universities from the policies of George Osborne, the chancellor.

Last October at the Lib Dem conference, Mr Cable said that “if the Osborne policy were to prevail” in terms of the wider public finances after 2015, “which is fairly drastic cuts combined with no taxes, you would see, without doubt…that there would be a significant increase in fees, a reduction in the [student loan repayment] threshold, and the thing which would save money would be really taking a lot of money out of student support: effectively by stopping grants and turning them to loans, something of that kind.”

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and a former head of the No 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair, told a Pearson-Financial Times post-election event on 11 May that he “expects the £9K cap will be lifted following an aggressive and tendentious campaign by the Russell Group, who seem to be the only people the government listens to”.

At the very least, universities will be pressing for the £9,000 fee cap to be allowed to rise in line with inflation. Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: “The indexing of fee caps to inflation would help maintain levels of investment in HE in real terms. We urge the new government to allow fees to rise annually in line with inflation.”

The continental campaign

On Europe, the Conservatives are committed to holding an in-out referendum on EU membership by 2017, although there are suggestions that David Cameron could seek to hold the vote next year.

UUK has previously said that Britain’s universities benefit from £1.2 billion a year in European research funding.

Ms Dandridge said that UUK would be involved in “a public-facing campaign to talk very clearly and explicitly about the value of European membership and the damage…that would be done if we were to leave. We hope it will be a powerful voice in that campaign. But I think we’ve got to move on that quite quickly because we don’t know the timescale of any referendum.”

She added that the benefits for universities from EU membership were “not just their income…it’s also a question of the quality of research because such a high proportion of research collaborations are tied with European universities, European researchers.”

Dr Piatt said: “Continued European-level collaboration on research and innovation is essential for the future. European funding isn’t a top-up, but a key and irreplaceable part of our research income.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Ms Dandridge, you need to realise that the Conservative Party was elected on the manifesto of giving in-out referendum to people. Please grow up and accept the verdict of the people under the current electoral system. Dr Piatt, I have good idea of the research effort by the UUK in respect of EU funding. Except a small core of a few universities, the rest have dismal record. Most European universities are very active in getting more funding in the STEM areas than the UUK universities.

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