UK universities facing cuts

It was always clear that the recent experience of Irish universities of significant cuts in the light of the economic downturn was also going to be a feature of British higher education funding. Yesterday the UK’s Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Lord Mandelson (whose remit covers higher education), wrote the annual ‘grant letter‘, which is a letter by the Secretary of State to the English funding council (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are handled locally) indicating what funds will be available to the sector. This year the main emphasis is on efficiency gains and cuts. As is sometimes the case when politicians address the sector, the main message is one of expecting the probably unachievable: Lord Mandelson is here found suggesting ‘greater efficiency, improved collaboration and bearing down on costs’, all to be done with ‘a commitment to protect quality and access’. Well, it is Christmas.

The new cut to budgets contained in the letter amounts to £135 million. Some of the money will be taken from capital budgets, so that the cut to teaching allocations will be £51 million. Taking the overall teaching budget of England, this is a cut of around 1 per cent. I suppose one might say, from an Irish perspective, that this isn’t all that much – after all, we have just been cut by 4 per cent, on top of cuts in the previous year. Nevertheless, the cut, along with Lord Mandelson’s reflections on how universities need to develop their strategies and his intention to protect but ‘concentrate’ research funding, is another instance of the pressures currently being applied that are necessarily going to have to lead to a re-assessment of what model of higher education we can now pursue that will leave universities globally competitive.

It is clear that governments, and those advising them on education strategy, no longer consider the traditional university model to be desirable or viable. On the whole the response to this from the universities in these countries has not presented a strong case for an alternative strategy likely to be seen as realistic by the politicians. This is now an urgent priority. I propose to set out some of the issues in a series of posts on this blog early in the New Year.

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6 Comments on “UK universities facing cuts”

  1. Vincent Says:

    this is not of FvP.

  2. Iainmacl Says:

    The other issue raised was that of raising the ghost of the ‘two year’ degree, with teaching all year round, something welcomed by England’s only private University (Buckingham) but not particularly appreciated by anyone else at all, never mind that fact that it isn’t exactly likely to be Bologna compliant either. But then the same government has also invented the ‘foundation degree’ and of course has now put the Universities into the business department of government. Given that the private sector has been so spectacularly successful in Britain and internationally over the past year or so then its only fair that Mandelson should also encourage the universities to emulate business – isn’t it?

    I suspect applications for posts in Scotland and Wales might be on the rise soon…

  3. iainmacl Says:

    As for Mandelson himself, well the Independent (UK) provides this quote about his life as an undergraduate.

    “When Peter Mandelson went to St Catherine’s College, Oxford, in 1973, no one seriously expected the life of an undergraduate to be all study and no socialising.

    Oxbridge students, particularly, were part of an elite, for whom the friends and contacts they made were as important as their degree. Mandelson had to resit the exams he took at the end of his first year, after spending too much time running the university’s United Nations Association. This setback did not deter him from going on to be a leading light in the university’s Labour Club. He emerged from Oxford with only a second class honours degree, but the contacts he made – including Charles Clarke and Benazir Bhutto – were more valuable to his future. The one contemporary he missed was Tony Blair, who was more interested in rock and religion than politics.”

    • kevin denny Says:

      I think that gives a somewhat jaundiced view of “Oxbridge”. We all make friends and contacts at university but the idea that being an Oxbridge graduate enters one into some kind of Freemasonry is a myth I would say. I bump into people who were also at Oxford: it provides a little common ground but no big deal really.
      One always has to clarify what is meant by elite here: social or intellectual? I am comfortable with the latter but not the former. To some extent they coincide in Oxford and Cambridge. The students there are very good on average but yeah there are a lot of public school types [‘though probably not in St Catherines].
      Having said that, my guess is that socially Oxford and Cambridge are probably no more elitist than UCD and TCD for example if you looked at the proportion of kids who’s parents were manual workers. This would probably not be considered newsworthy here.
      Anyway none of this is terribly relevant for Ireland. We need some leadership from our university presidents [ahem…] to advance the case for the sector.


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