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The changing fortunes of British Higher Education

Quietly made public just three days before Christmas, a 6.6% cut to the higher education budget for the next academic year has caused serious concern about the future of English universities. Representing a £135 million cut in addition to the £180 million worth of “efficiency savings” announced in the 2009 budget, previous investments in higher education under Labour have been all but reversed.

For Royal Holloway a 6.6% cut to last year’s funding allocation would represent an overall loss of £2.47m in funding. It is however important to remember that the extent to which Royal Holloway’s funding changes, for better or worse, depends entirely upon the HEFCE allocations later this year. In a statement for The Founder Royal Holloway described the announcement as “disappointing but unsurprising” that will prompt the university to consider “”the options available to us under various funding scenarios” while “preparing very carefully and thoughtfully for the very high possibility of further substantial spending cuts.”

On the subject of any layoffs the university said: “whatever we do, we do with a view to ensuring that current standards are maintained, within available resources, both in research and teaching” while “doing everything possible to avoid compulsory redundancies and to maintain investment in the whole student experience”.

Great Britain has long been renowned for its superb higher education system. The country today remains the second most popular destination for international students. Britain has the best universities in the world, with eighteen institutions in the top one hundred. Yet this international reputation is now threatened by a series of budget cuts from a government who appear to have adopted a curious strategy of fighting the recession by supporting failing industries while allowing the higher education system to suffer.

Elsewhere, other world leaders have recognised the value of improving their nation’s skills to encourage economic recovery. Nicholas Sarkozy has recently announced an €11 billion investment towards French universities, claiming that he wants them to be “the best universities in the world”. Germany meanwhile has pumped a total of 18 billion Euros towards promoting world class research alongside their universities. Barack Obama has pledged an additional $21 billion to additional federal science spending.

In a letter to the chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills Lord Mandelson laid out both the new budgetary limitations and his plans for two-year degree courses. Explaining how “across the public sector we are all facing difficult choices” due to the effects of recession, Lord Mandelson asked the HEFCE to “do all you can to widen access to our higher education system”, while “increasing the variety of undergraduate provision” at the same time as maintaining a “high quality student experience, with excellent teaching well supported by the latest technology”. These often reiterated yet important aims of higher education must now be pursued with considerably less money.

Universities, teachers unions and students have all met the news with disdain and anger. In a vehement letter to Gordon Brown then published in The Guardian, Prof Michael Arthur, chair of the Russell Group and vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, predicted how the cuts would have a “devastating effect not only on students and staff, but also on Britain’s international competitiveness”. Going further the president of Universities UK, Steve Smith, has warned that institutions face having to close hundreds of courses, with fewer academic staff and bigger classes. Further proposals that include two-year “McDegrees” and bias towards more ‘employable’ subjects such as business, science and engineering will also only serve to further jeopardise the quality of British degrees and also limit the enjoyment and experience of university life for students.

During an interview for the Observer, Professor Danny Blanchflower called for student fees to be raised, enabling universities to charge the richest students large fees while providing financial aid to the less well off. The economist lectures at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, an American university that is a member of the Ivy League. “People there pay $50,000 [£31,300] a year, the real price of education, and we are flooded with applicants,” he said. “But there is financial aid for half the students. We have a ‘needs-blind’ system [that offers financial support for families who cannot afford the fees]. That is much more egalitarian than any UK university.” He also compared the difference in British attitudes towards paying private school fees to forking out for university costs as ‘crazy,’ pointing out that parents are happy to pay up to £30,000 a year for elite schools such as Eton but are not prepared to pay within the same region for their children to receive a university education.

How such savings are to be made has been the principal concern for students and lecturers. Fears that the most recent cuts will lead to the laying off of up to 14,000 staff has made strike action by some unions a possibility. Funding cuts have already caused The University and College Union branch of the University of Leeds to threaten industrial action and call a series of emergency meetings. Increased class sizes have been seen as the almost inevitable result of funding and staff cuts, an eventuality that many argue will adversely affect academic standards.

If this is the winter of student discontent then the future looks little brighter. With the current cuts likely to genuinely affect higher education in England and no guarantee that a Conservative government would do anything differently. Student fears that their degrees are losing their value have been building for some time now with the announcement of these cuts only adding to student anxiety.

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