Shunned six made to fight for survival

March 30, 2001

The government's student-funding policies have plunged new universities into crisis, lecturers' leaders and university managers claimed this week.

Six universities have been placed under emergency funding-council supervision and must submit survival plans by next week as financial crises begin to bite.

It is understood that all six are from the post-1992 sector, including Luton, South Bank and East London universities.

Lecturers' union Natfhe said that at least 150 jobs would go at these three and that it expected hundreds more job losses at eight other new universities.

Natfhe blamed the crisis on student under-recruitment caused by the government's decision to introduce tuition fees at the same time as scrapping maintenance grants. The union said this problem had been compounded by the government's decision to expand higher education, a move it claims has favoured old universities.

Jenny Golden, Natfhe official for the Southeast, where the crisis has hit hardest, said that mounting anecdotal evidence had convinced her that government policy had unfairly damaged new universities. She said it was a bitter blow to staff, who have done so much to help the government meet its widening participation targets.

"I am prepared to accept that the loss of the maintenance grant and the introduction of fees has had a major impact," she said.

She said that many students had turned their backs on new universities in favour of pre-1992 institutions with their greater resources and better reputations.

"Students who know they will be saddled with £14,000 of debt at the end of a course are making choices. If they can get a place in an old university, where the unit of resource is better, they will go," she said.

Natfhe said that the Higher Education Funding Council for England's funding policies had helped old universities recruit those who would usually enter the new university sector. Hefce announced in August that institutions could recruit up to 4 per cent more students than had originally been agreed without facing financial penalties for over-recruitment.

Marion Tappin, a spokeswoman for the University of East London, said Hefce's decision meant that students were being snapped up by their first choice universities, which tended to be old institutions. If government had not set such ambitious expansion targets, many of these students would have been rejected by old universities and been obliged to take places at new universities instead.

UEL is facing a £2.5 million funding gap, and Hefce has demanded a recovery plan by next Friday. Natfhe said that it expected the university to confirm more than 100 job losses as The THES went to press. The university said it was too early to predict redundancy figures, because its recovery plan was not yet ready.

Natfhe has also predicted job losses at South Bank University, which is facing a £3.7 million funding gap. The university had initially faced a £3.7 million clawback by Hefce because of its failure to meet recruitment targets. Hefce said it would demand only £400,000 of the debt this September and next, in order to protect the university.

The university declined to comment this week, because it had not yet submitted its action plan to its board.

At Luton University, a minimum of 50 academic posts will be lost in an attempt to save £4 million. The university had been facing a funding clawback of about £3 million for missing its recruitment target by 10 per cent. The figure has been reduced to £75,000.

It also emerged this week that Luton is owed almost £8 million in unpaid tuition and accommodation fees. The debt equals more than a third of the institution's total funding council income this year. Staff were expected to lodge a vote of no confidence in management this week and a strike ballot is taking place.

Several other new universities have been hit by under-recruitment. The University of Lincolnshire and Humberside had been due to pay Hefce £2.5 million for under-recruiting this year. Nottingham Trent was facing a £2.3 million clawback, and the University of Sunderland a £1.4 million bill. These institutions were given a funding council reprieve.

A Hefce spokesman denied a crisis existed. He said: "We have asked six institutions for recovery plans because of the scale of funding involved."

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