The government’s plan to create deep cuts to university funding and replace the revenue with a huge hike in tuition fees will put a third of England’s universities at risk of financial ruin and closure, a report has shown.
The report, carried out by UCU, the lecturers’ union, showed that as the government reduces its university funding dramatically, withdrawing funds altogether from non-science or mathematics related courses, many arts and creative courses and institutions will fail to be sustainable as they are required to suddenly become self-funded. Some of the most highly respected arts institutions in the country, many of them treasured as top UK universities, from Norwich University College of the Arts to the University of Worcester, Manchester Metropolitan and Roehampton University, are labelled at risk.
As Michael Williams, retired Professor in biomedical science commented on our previous blog, “the attack on the arts and social science courses”, whilst they may save money in the short term, nonetheless represent “an attack on our culture itself. This government is anti-cultural, self-seeking, and philistine.” The great risk is that by short-sightedly abolishing government funding for all but the most scientific and vocational courses, the government, whilst reaping immediate economic gain, are robbing our country in the long run of its arts, its culture, its creative achievement, and perhaps most worryingly of all, its teachers and leaders in the creative fields too.
As self-funded courses and arts-based institutions are forced to raise their tuition fees above those of more scientific and mathematical lines of study still supported by the government, it is facetious to suggest that the popularity of such degrees will not plummet, with students likely to be understandably unwilling to pay over the odds for a course unlikely to be directly vocational when they leave university saddled with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt. The fear for the future of artistic, innovative and culturally creative academia seems confirmed by the fact that many of the institutions named as at risk or high risk by the UCU report are new and specialist universities, offering cutting-edge artistic courses. The result for England, as Williams fears, could be a cultural wasteland.
Perhaps even more worrying still is the indication by the report that many of the institutions and universities at the highest risk of closure following the changes to tuition fees are those that recruit “a significant number of widening participation students.” This suggests, as protesters have feared and warned, that inevitably some of the worst-hit universities will be those showing outstanding commitment to access to higher education for those from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds. It will be very difficult for the government to argue against this new evidence that their tuition fees agenda will have a severely compromising effect on the fairness of access to university places and the numbers of disadvantaged students applying for them.
Whilst Clegg, Cameron and Universities Minister David Willetts argue that the new system will be “fairer and more progressive”, with new provision for access schemes and scholarships built in, a simple case study highlighted by the UCU report puts their promises firmly into perspective. Taking as an example Sheffield Hallam University, a well-respected and stable academic institution, the report explains that its already fragile annual surplus of just under 2 million pounds would be obliterated to a negative balance of around 45 million pounds a year under the government’s new scheme. To suggest that this effect of the rise in tuition fees will not have a devastating impact on access to education and excellence in arts and culture at some of our top UK universities is simply wishful coalition thinking.