The Higher Education Council for England (HEFCE) announced today its provisional funding distribution to universities and colleges in England for 2010-11. The main decisions by the HEFCE Board were as follows:
- “£4,727 million recurrent funding for teaching. This represents an increase of 0.4 per cent in cash terms or a decrease of 1.6 per cent in real terms, compared with 2009-10.
- £1,603 million recurrent funding for research. This represents a £32 million or 2 per cent increase in cash terms (maintained in real terms) on the £1,571 million allocated for the 2009-10 academic year.
- £562 million in capital funding, which represents a 14.9 per cent reduction in cash terms on the 2009-10 allocation.
- £294 million in special funding for national programmes and initiatives. This represents a 7 per cent reduction in cash terms on 2009-10.
- £150 million for the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), which compares with £134 million in 2009-10. This represents an 11.9 per cent increase”.
Responses from the university sector were not surprisingly highly critical. As the BBC reported, this represented a cut of £449 million, with teaching budgets being reduced by £215 million, a cut in real terms of 1.6% on 2009-10 levels, research being frozen, and the buildings budget being cut by 15%. It is estimated that these cuts will lead to a reduction in student places in England of about 6,000 compared with 2009-10 levels.
Such cuts add fuel to the universities’ demands to be allowed to charge students higher fees. But in an election year, the student vote may delay such apparently inevitable fee increases. Again, as the BBC notes, “Students campaigning against an increase in tuition fees are targeting MPs who hold seats in a “hit list” of university cities in England. The National Union of Students says MPs must support their campaign against higher fees – or lose the student vote. Among the MPs identified as targets by students are three ministers – John Denham, Ben Bradshaw and Hilary Benn – and the chief whip, Nick Brown”.
While these cuts are in large part driven by the need for the government to reduce the deficit brought about by its efforts to overcome the financial crisis of 2008-9, they do highlight some important questions:
- Do we already have too many students going to university?
- What is so special about the notion that it is healthy to have 50% of our young people going to university?
- Are universities providing appropriate learning opportunities for those who study there?
I live in hope that these cuts might be used sensibly to help provide responses to these questions. Rather than trying to support an increasingly second-rate university system that fails not only its students and academics, but also the wider society of which we are all part, surely the time has come for a cull of universities? Should we not close those that are least effective, and turn them into institutions that would provide the technical skills and expertise that our country so badly needs? Let us stop pretending that half of our population somehow has a right to go to university, and instead use the limited amounts of funding available to support a truly outstanding research and learning culture in institutions that can properly call themselves universities.
For some practical suggestions on how we might achieve this, see my comment on “Solving the crises facing UK universities“