The Higher Education Funding Council for England has announced further budget cuts for England’s universities. For 2010-11, a total of nearly £449 million has been cut from the £7.3 billion universities’ budget set out in the last comprehensive spending review, £135 million has been added to earlier ‘efficiency savings’ of £180 million and a further £600 million is to follow. These pressures come as universities face unprecedented demand for places, with some institutions reporting that new applications are up by more than 20%.
Wes Streeting, the President of the National Union of Students (NUS), believes the cuts amount to ‘national self-harm’ and threaten ‘irreversible damage’ to higher education, and has argued that the new funding package will translate to a reduction in student places in England of about 6,000 on 2009-10 levels. The NUS is therefore mobilising the student vote for the general election, threatening to vote against candidates who do not support the union’s campaign against a possible increase in fees in England. According to the NUS, the student vote can make a ‘decisive difference’ in constituencies with big student populations. Nottingham features alongside Durham, Cambridge, Southampton and London in the top 20 ‘student battlegrounds’ identified by the union, and so far around 200 MPs and prospective candidates from differing parties have signed this ‘pledge’ against raising fees.
The estimation of 6,000 less places pales into insignificance, though, when one adds in other predictions as to how these cuts will affect university admissions. The President of Universities UK (the representative body for the executive heads of UK universities) has suggested that the fallout of such cuts could threaten the prospects of 200,000 potential students. Professor Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, said: “Last year about 160,000 students who applied didn’t end up going to university. This year, we already know that there are about another 75,000 applying for university. This means that more than 200,000 could miss out”. This will undoubtedly be a further cause for apprehension amongst those considering higher education, as there is a persistent threat of higher fees alongside this new question mark of available places.
The budget cuts have unsurprisingly received a widespread negative reception; Michael Arthur, Leeds University’s Vice-Chancellor and Russell Group Chairman, has argued that the current plans risk a significant amount of university and course closure. While the Liberal Democrats have criticised the government’s much publicised target of ‘50% in higher education’ as “empty rhetoric”, lecturers also face further job insecurity, with the University and College Union suggesting that the cuts could lead to 9,000 job losses by 2013.
The Government, however, has launched a stalwart defence to the attacks on the budget review. The Higher Education Minister for England, David Lammy, fought back stating that “these savings come against a background of record Government investment in higher education – around 25% more than 1997”. He accused universities of “scaremongering” on the issue. Writing in the Guardian, Lord Mandelson insisted income for research and tuition would still grow between 2009 and 2011, and was dismissive of the effect the cuts, claiming that “these new constraints are very small in the context of overall university income and certainly do not reverse a decade of investment in excellence”. He discounted concerns about decreasing student places, concluding that “universities have never enjoyed such a long and sustained period of public and financial support and more students will be studying next year than ever before in our history”.