Fresh on the heels of the devastating decision to raise UK university tuition fees to £9000, the government has struck a further blow to education with the announcement of a 6% cut to university teaching budgets, amounting to a drop in university funding of £400 million.
In the government’s annual letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, ministers revealed that teaching budgets would be cut by 6%, which the vice chancellors’ umbrella body Universities UK warned would amount to an 8% cut in real terms. In addition, the letter outlines cuts to capital funding for teaching-related projects, including some university buildings, by more than half, from £207m to £95m.
What is most shocking and dangerous about these cuts from a university point of view, is that the government has not waited for the new higher tuition fees to kick in before slashing the university budgets, which would at least have given universities the opportunity to replace the government funding deficit with new income from higher fees. Instead, in spite of rigorous campaigning for the cuts to be delayed until April 2012 for this reason, the government has sailed ahead with the cuts, giving themselves yet more financial gain from the dumping of the economic burden onto the backs of graduating students and, now, universities themselves.
Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, warned that this would do great damage to the ability of universities to prepare themselves for the changeover from state to public funding when higher tuition fees kick in, with the challenges and instability it will bring to higher education. He explained: “Rather than spending the next 18 months thinking about how we’re going to prepare for a very different world, we’re now going to have to spend time dealing with a 8% cut.”
Whilst some universities have already warned that the eventual cuts will force them to declare bankruptcy in spite of higher tuition fees, this new blow is likely to throw even the most stable institutions into financial disarray, with a devastating effect on those already struggling to cope in tough economic times. Whilst the government insists that universities will be able to recoup their lost funding through charging up to £9000 tuition fees, they have not offered any explanation or suggested plan of action for universities now facing huge funding reductions before this relief will become available to them.
The University and College Union predicted dire consequences and described the cuts as a “kick in the teeth” that would cause English universities to fall far behind their international counterparts. “The government seems to think that the sector will be able to deliver more for less and students will be happy to pay three times the price. That is absolute madness,” said general secretary Sally Hunt.
Meanwhile Gareth Thomas, the opposition spokesperson for higher education warned of the severely damaging effects the cuts would have on the quality and choice of university courses available. He said: “Just when we thought things couldn’t get worse for students, the government is cutting funding to universities…Inevitably it will have an impact on the quality of courses and on lecturers and it is further bad news for universities.” Thomas went on to describe anxiety and concerns about the cuts voiced by the institutions themselves, revealing: “on the basis of conversations I have had with vice-chancellors, it is difficult to see how they could not cut courses and staff. So I am afraid student choice will suffer and the quality of their experience at university could be badly affected.”
These cuts have been outlined and spearheaded by new coalition Universities Minister David Willetts, who claims that universities should be “well able to handle the cuts”. Rather ironic, given that almost exactly one year ago he voraciously criticised cuts to university funding, declaring: “Our view is that higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.”