Vice-chancellors will soon have to find new ways of coping with reduced funding as yet more cuts in university spending have been announced. Next year university funding will be cut by £518 million, and many universities now face a move towards two year ‘fast track’ degree courses.
Business secretary Lord Mandelson wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England to ask them to develop proposals for more flexible degrees, saying “over the next spending review period, we will want some shift away from full-time three year places and towards a wider variety of provision”.
Lecturers described the news as a ‘Christmas kick in the teeth’ for students and university staff, and also prompted warnings that shorter courses will lower academic standards. Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union, which represents lecturers, said “we will see teachers on the dole, students in larger classes and a higher education sector unable to contribute as much to the economy and society”.
Professor Les Ebdon, Chairman of the university think-tank Million+ and vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University, said the shift towards two-year degrees was “tinkering with the edges” and while two-year intensive degrees work for some students, such as those who do not have to fund themselves with part-time jobs, they will only be offered in very limited numbers.
The fast track or ‘compressed’ degrees were first introduced in 2006 in five UK universities and involve having a third teaching term in the long summer vacation. However, by reducing the opportunity to work during the holidays, to be able to afford living costs throughout the year, means this may not be such a suitable choice for lower income students.
In addition to the two-year degree proposals, universities also face fines of £3,700 per extra head for recruiting more students in the autumn than ministers had budgeted for, and with estimates indicating that 22,000 additional students were taken on these could amount to nearly £60 million.
The Conservatives have attacked the Government for fining universities that were trying to meet the target of getting 50% of young people into higher education, calling it a “bizarre situation”, yet ministers are hoping that introducing more two-year courses might help achieve this target. Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, said the cuts “will sound chimes of doom for existing students in cuts-hit universities and for talented school leavers set to fail to secure a university place”.