Universities dig in for showdown over targets

September 6, 2002

Vice-chancellors are poised to raise the tension over funding and student expansion by demanding to know why higher education is being kept in the dark by the government on both issues.

Top of the agenda as more than 100 university heads gather in Aberystwyth for next week's annual Universities UK conference - which is to be addressed by higher education minister Margaret Hodge - is the government's 50 per cent higher education participation target and the resources needed to reach it.

Ms Hodge, who is due to speak on Wednesday, faces the unenviable task of trying to reassure vice-chancellors about higher education funding and strategy while being unable to announce money or any other specifics.

Details of how much higher education can expect from the July spending review have been delayed until the autumn. The publication of a white paper on strategy is expected in November.

The white paper is expected to set out higher education strategy for the next ten years. Announcements of how much money the sector will receive over the spending review period 2003-06 and how many more students institutions will be expected to recruit will accompany its publication.

Ms Hodge's speech is expected to focus on the 50 per cent target that universities must reach by 2010. The minister will stress again that expansion cannot be at the expense of quality.

She is also due to speak about maintaining UK universities' international standing and the growing competition from overseas. And she will tell delegates that whatever funding system emerges, it has to be sustainable.

UUK president Roderick Floud is expected to make a robust case for added investment in higher education. A recent report for UUK estimated the sector to be worth nearly £35 billion annually to the economy. By comparison, UUK has called for an extra £9.94 billion between 2003 and 2006.

Professor Floud will highlight the difficulties already faced by universities as they struggle to maintain quality amid rising student numbers and inflation on wage and equipment costs. Some universities are also finding it difficult to recruit sufficient students to fill the places available.

* At least eight universities could shut if the government continues with its "savage" free-market approach to higher education, the Association of University Teachers has warned, writes Phil Baty .

The AUT named eight universities that "could be left to go to the wall", as they are facing real-terms funding cuts for 2002-03 after failing to attract enough students or losing research funding.

"The introduction of a savage free-market approach to funding in higher education would be wholly inappropriate and completely unacceptable," said AUT general secretary Sally Hunt.

The AUT's eight listed universities were: Luton, facing a real-terms funding cut of 10 per cent for 2002-03; South Bank, facing a 6.1 per cent cut: Lincoln, facing a 5.7 per cent cut; Greenwich and Hull universities, facing a 1.2 per cent cut; and North London, Coventry and Leicester, all facing cuts of less than 1 per cent.

All eight denied that there was any question of closure.

Tim Boatswain, pro vice-chancellor at Luton, said the university "knew all along that there would be a fall in applications this year", because it had phased out traditional and less popular courses. But its strategy was working and it was recruiting well to the remaining courses, he said.

The AUT said it was the universities doing most to widen access that were hit hardest. "If you're a poor single mum in Luton, struggling to make ends meet, how would you access higher education if your local university closes?" said Ms Hunt.

Baroness Warwick, UUK chief executive, said: "We are very concerned about the impact of changes this year to the funding methodology that have led to wide variation in universities' funding allocations, with significant real-terms cuts faced by several institutions."

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