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Reassurance needed from Mandelson on fees

The University of Nottingham’s Lord Dearing conference was dominated by the appearance of Lord Mandelson and his attempts to justify the recently announced budget cuts to higher education. The cuts have been condemned by student unions and academic departments across the country. These groups have expressed fears that both university students and the quality of research will suffer from the government’s attempts to cut expenditure across the board.

Lord Mandelson spoke of how these cuts were a necessity due to the regrettable cost of having to save the banking sector – an understandable if somewhat controversial justification. He attempted to quash fears by outlining how these cuts could be seen as an opportunity for universities to access funding from different sources, such as through business links or private donations. He also remarked on the cost effectiveness and merits of courses other than the standard three-year undergraduate degree, such as two-year intensive degrees, part-time study and more vocational opportunities, concluding that these were progressive and important steps for the future of higher education.

However, Lord Mandelson failed to tackle some major problems that these spending cuts present, failing to acknowledge the damaging impact they could have upon students, economically and educationally. With less money available, inexperienced and under-qualified teaching staff may well become more commonplace to the detriment of the student, while at the same time finances towards educational resources and the student experience may be cut. It is even possible that student finance allowances will be reduced in an attempt to cut costs, something advocated by a representative of the Russell Group who claimed Britain’s student funding was amongst the most generous in Europe.

University tuition fees, currently under governmental review, have been touted as one way to access greater sources of non-state funding. Speculation of fees rising to seven or ten thousand pounds a year led to our own SU president, Rob Greenhalgh, giving Lord Mandelson a petition on behalf of the DEBTonate campaign as such huge fee rises have the potential to significantly affect the accessibility and value of university degrees.

This would also be a further setback to Labours plans to have 50% of young adults in higher education. However, this already seems an impossible target due to the freeze in university places for this year, a step enforced by the prospect of cuts in spending and the current economic climate. This objective has always been criticised for seeking quantitative development over qualitative, and while Lord Mandelson mentioned the need for university application to be a competitive process – something that many would agree with – this could also be seen merely as an attempt to gloss over the negative impact of spending cuts. Such competition should undoubtedly come from increasing standards of education rather than a decreasing number of places.

This is undoubtedly a time of uncertainty for students and Britain’s university system. Spending cuts are inevitable across all government-funded areas, something most students and academics will accept. However, the government must remember the importance of education for Britain’s future economy, and perhaps facilitate the long-term advantages of retaining a world leading higher education system by cutting costs more severely in other areas in the short term.

Most importantly, reassurances need to be given over the future of student financial support and funding requirements. While uncertainty looms over governmental input – and most damagingly over the cost of tuition fees – undoubtedly attendance levels will stutter. This is something which will have negative repercussions for Britain and will also undermine Labour’s educational pledges. The announced reductions to university spending are not a cause for students to revolt as yet; rationally they are justifiable and acceptable in the current climate. However, to maintain its credibility and encourage increased university admissions, this government needs to give assurances as to the extent of cuts and on the future of finances for the average student.

Daniel Cowling

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