Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review heralds more cuts for universities


Government funding for higher education is set to be cut by 40% according to the recent Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). Indications suggest that the arts, humanities and social sciences will be hit the hardest while STEM subjects will be protected.

The CSR has emphasised the importance of investing in science and technology to ensure that the UK remains a world leader in science and research. As part of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which oversees higher education, the science budget will be maintained at £4.6bn a year. This is in stark contrast to the £2.9bn higher education funding will be cut by over the period of the Spending Review.

STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects will be protected as part of this initiative to encourage growth in the sector. Furthermore, reforms in the Higher Education Innovation Fund are designed to incentivise universities to increase their commercial links with research and business in these areas.

Nonetheless, with arts and humanities falling into the lowest band of the HECFE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) there are concerns that funding from these departments will be removed and re-invested into STEM subjects.

Vice Chancellor, Paul Wellings said “the CSR is expected to remove funding for all non-medical and non-laboratory based subjects […] There can only be two outcomes – either the nature of teaching these subjects [arts and humanities] will change and the student experience decline or alternative sources of funding will be found to replace the funding previously allocated by the State.”

[pull name=”Robert Appelbaum” title=”Head of Department for English and Creative Writing”]The government is waging war against the humanities and social sciences — the very disciplines that teach us how to speak truth to power. The government is silencing critique — and it will be up to universities to refuse to be silenced.[/pull]

LUSU President Robbie Pickles responded to the cuts saying “we are cutting back public spending too soon which will stunt growth in the economy and in my opinion will cause the stratification of society to widen, so that the poorer people stay poor and the richer people will get richer”.

Teaching grants for the arts, humanities and social sciences are planned to be scrapped, while the extra costs for teaching laboratory based subjects will be maintained.

Robert Appelbaum, Head of Department for English and Creative Writing said, “the government is waging war against the humanities and social sciences – the very disciplines that teach us how to speak truth to power. The government is silencing critique – and it will be up to universities to refuse to be silenced.”

Proposals that teaching grants will be “going in a different way – going via the student” has meant that there will be a “shift from public spending towards greater contributions from those that benefit most”’, the graduates. Students will carry more responsibility for the funding of their higher education, so that the taxpayer is not left to pay for them.

In line with the Lord Browne review, the Government plans to increase tuition fees by the 2012-2013 academic year. However, there has been some contention surrounding the levels of increase between the Conservatives, who wish to closely follow the Browne review by removing the cap on tuition fees, and the Liberal Democrats who want the cap to remain but are backing an increase in fees to around £7000.

Business Secretary Vince Cable and Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg both signed the pledge against the rising in tuition fees before the general election. The recent developments have caused some critics to argue that they have gone back on their word. Clegg argued that he “regretted ditching his pre-election commitment to scrapping tuition fees, but it had to be done due to the financial situation the country was in”.

One of the key focuses of the Browne Review was to ensure that UK universities are able to maintain their status in the global market. In the foreword of the review, Browne says “our competitive edge is being challenged by advances made elsewhere. Other countries are increasing investment in their HEIs [Higher Education Institutions] and educating more people to higher standards.”

Nonetheless, whilst tuition fees are being increased, there is a feeling from academics and those involved in higher education that the cuts in government funding planned in the CSR will counteract the increase in fees, leaving universities in a position where they are struggling to survive in a competitive market.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group said, “it should not be forgotten that our competitor countries are injecting enormous investment into their universities to kick-start growth. Even with this late reprieve [for the research budget], it will remain extremely challenging for leading UK universities to maintain their world-class status and to keep pace with our competitors.”

There is fear that individuals will stop going to university and that those universities at the bottom of the league tables will disappear. Concerns about the quality and range of teaching have also been questioned by critics in the industry.

“If universities are deprived of funds in the next year, they could have to close departments or take remedial action to keep their budgets balanced”, said Adrian Bailey, Labour chair of committee.

If the cuts are implemented before tuition fees rise universities will be left without compensation to cover their losses. This could lead to universities going out of business.
Funding concerns have sparked rumour that some universities are considering going private. Under this system universities would be able to charge higher tuition fees than the current £3,290 and would not have to follow government guidelines on widening access to poorer students.

Questions about the London School of Economics (LSE) future have recently been examined, with the possibility of rejecting public funding because there is a fear that “a rise in tuition fees will not provide sufficient funding for English universities to compete globally.”

Nonetheless, in spite of the cuts to higher education the CSR has outlined plans “to ensure a fair deal for students, including those from low income backgrounds, and low income graduates, the Government will establish a new £150m National Scholarship fund to support students from disadvantaged background.”

This support is designed to encourage individuals from all backgrounds to be able to access higher education, not just the privileged. In contrast to the cuts being made in higher education, education is being protected and invested in.

“Higher education for some reason is being hit even though education isn’t. I believe that higher education should be ring fenced and invested in. Other countries in similar financial difficulties like us, such as France and the USA, are investing more into higher education to get themselves out of recession”, argued Pickles.

The Executive Summary explains that “the Spending Review makes choices. Particular focus has been given to reducing welfare costs and wasteful spending. This has enabled the Coalition Government to prioritise the NHS, schools, early years provision and capital investments that support long term economic growth, setting the country on a new path towards long term prosperity and fairness.”

Education is seen as important to the growth of the future economy and therefore has been hit less hard by the spending cuts, seeing only a 3.4% reduction in cumulative real growth in comparison with the 25% reduction in BIS.

Overall the CSR does not thoroughly discuss the specifics of how changes in Government funding will fully impact on higher education. Well educated assertions have been made, but with regards to a clear break down on how public spending will be implemented universities will have to wait for the Government to publish a White Paper during the winter to which will give a more detailed breakdown of cuts.

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