UUK head: cuts reality 'rather different to the headlines'

Steve Smith warns that downbeat media theme will damage UK global reputation. John Morgan reports

March 17, 2011

Claims that the UK government is cutting funding for higher education are "not factually accurate" and gloomy media coverage is damaging the sector's reputation overseas, according to the president of Universities UK.

Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, told an audience of international higher education leaders at the Going Global conference in Hong Kong last week that the reality of the government's funding changes in England was "rather different to the headlines".

He also countered suggestions that fees for overseas students would triple and described the UK as still being "welcoming" to international students despite visa restrictions.

Professor Smith's message on funding echoed that from David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who told the conference: "We expect universities to get the same amount of cash, if not more than they have received up to now."

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Smith rebutted criticism of the reforms.

"The story 'government slashes public spending on higher education' isn't factually accurate," he said. It was slashing direct state funding for institutions, but was replacing it with massive increases in student loans and grants, he added.

Professor Smith admitted there was a "weakness" to his argument, namely that a far greater portion of higher education funding would now be returned to the state through graduate repayments. "But even so, the money has to be found (to provide student loans)," he added.

"The paradox is that in the name of deficit reduction, the government increases its outlay - it just doesn't count as spending."

In his speech, he said that spending on higher education in England would actually rise by about £4 billion a year by 2014.

In the deliberately upbeat message he presented at the conference, Professor Smith said that since arriving in Asia, he had encountered many people who believed that the UK's fees for overseas students would triple under the new system.

"Sometimes we are very good in Britain at saying things are really bad and not realising the international impact of what we say," he added, singling out critical media coverage of the new fees system.

On his own record, Professor Smith emphasised: "I have never failed to push the case for UK higher education with the government."

At the conference, critics of Professor Smith privately suggested that his message was indistinguishable from that of Mr Willetts, and that any increase in money was an "accidental" byproduct of an expensive loans system designed in haste for higher fees.

Speaking with reporters, Mr Willetts said that fraud investigations into private for-profit colleges in the US had not caused him to doubt his plans to introduce private competition to the UK market.

He referred to private UK firm BPP - sponsor of the opening reception at Going Global - which is owned by US private higher education giant Apollo.

"I judge BPP by what it does in Britain," Mr Willetts said. "In Britain, it runs well-regarded colleges."

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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