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The Emergency Budget: Is George Osborne on a Crusade against Higher Education?

It was stated, at the time of the recent Emergency Budget, that one of our major priorities is to put a dent in the deficit. George Osborne’s insistence that the budget is ‘tough but fair’ means that hardly anyone will be left untouched by the cuts, the idea being that we should all share in the suffering. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, however, is one of the governmental departments set to undergo some of the most severe cuts with its budget being slashed by £836 million. £82 million of these savings will be expected to come from Universities.

The repercussions of this will be numerous and profound. For prospective students, fewer places will be available and tuition fees could be on the rise. For graduates, Osborne’s budget casts an equally bleak outlook with unemployment expected to climb as a result of the financial outlook following the expected cuts.

Last year, ministers promised funding for 10,000 more university places, a pledge that will now go unfulfilled under the coalition. This could go some way to explaining how 25% of students who have enrolled at the Open University are now in the 17-25 year old demographic. With the cap on tuition fees set to rise in the near future, it seems more and more young people will be forced to look for alternative options to higher education. In a survey published by the Sutton Trust, it was found that currently 80% of young adults aged 11-16 are seriously considering applying to university. If, however, tuition fees were to rise to an annual sum of £7,000, only 45% of these young people would still seriously consider University a feasible option, according to the survey.

The Liberal Democrats have always been against tuition fees for students, but the agreement they have under the coalition only permits them to abstain from voting on the issue, rather than actively voting against them. This raises the question as to whether Nick Clegg could be doing more to try and draw a compromise that works more in his party’s favour over the issue. There certainly do not seem to be signs of Clegg fighting for the ‘fairer alternative’ to soaring tuition fees, a pledge that featured heavily during the campaign period. Vincent Cable, also a member of the Lib-Con cabinet, has recently outlined a scheme of Graduate Tax, which would mean that students only pay for their degree once they have graduated. While they are still studying the Government would cover the cost of each student’s tuition. Paul Goodman, who writes a blog on the Conservative party’s home page, calls Cable’s proposal a “dubious” one. Goodman states “In short, something has to give. Tax payers’ patience is limited, and there must either be fewer places or higher payments, or a mix of both… I may be wrong, but I find it difficult to imagine Conservative MPs signing up en masse for a graduate tax”.

For students who have graduated, the next stumbling block may be unemployment. Under Labour, a ‘Graduate Guarantee’ was established as a temporary measure to help graduates who had been unemployed for over six months. The Secretary of State for Business told the NUS that the coalition government is “committed to providing targeted support and will be introducing a single, integrated work programme to deliver personalised support for the unemployed, including appropriate graduates. Until this is introduced, we will ensure that unemployed graduates receive the support that they need”. If the Independent’s claim that 500,000 graduates will be looking work this summer is accurate, then this targeted support will be absolutely fundamental.

Osborne’s budget has been received with mixed feelings and varying responses. With more axing than taxing, public spending cuts will make up 77% of the total ‘cuts’ package. Until the Browne review of Higher Education reports its findings it is not known exactly how Universities will be expected to make such drastic cuts, but students must undoubtedly feel that the changes are unlikely to work in their favour.

Emily Sargent

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