The Big Question: How badly will £900m cuts damage the quality of British universities?

Why are we asking this now?

On a quiet day just before Christmas the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, announced cuts in university spending. This amounted to £518m being lopped off higher education funding next year (2010 to 2011). There was an outcry from vice-chancellors, students, lecturers and opposition MPs, and the Russell Group of research-intensive universities did a fast calculation, adding in some other cuts already announced (£600m in the pre-Budget report, plus a further £180m of "efficiency savings, for example), and came up with the figure of £900m. Michael Arthur and Wendy Piatt, the Russell Group's chairman and director-general respectively, said such "huge" cuts could lead to the closure of 30 universities. On Monday Higher Education Minister David Lammy said universites need their own sources of income.

What was Lord Mandelson's justification?

Pointing out that universities' income was now at record levels, he said that universities could not avoid the coming funding squeeze and that their income for research and teaching would still grow between 2009 and 2011. "These new constraints are very small in the context of overall university income," he said. Insisting that the Government's credentials in investing in higher education should not be in doubt, he said that universities had never enjoyed such a long and sustained period of public and financial support, and that more students would be studying next year than ever before.

Is the Business Secretary basically right?

Yes, under Labour universities have experienced what will undoubtedly be seen as a "golden age". Flush with money for capital projects, much of which they raised themselves, they have rebuilt their campuses, erected swish halls of residence with en suite bathrooms, put up new laboratories, research facilities and lecture theatres, not to mention sports halls and impressive student venues. They have also taken in large numbers of extra students, improving the participation rate and giving a whole generation of people a chance to get a degree. The Labour Government has improved spending on research, helping to burnish Britain's international reputation for higher education.

So why the complaints?

The cut amounts to a 12.5 per cent reduction in the Higher Education Funding Council for England's budget. From the point of view of total university income, it is a 4 per cent cut. The universities will be able to live with this, though it is bound to affect them. It will mean staff cuts, course cuts and cuts in student numbers – though it is unlikely to mean a university being forced to close. The leaders of the Russell Group must have decided that they had to start complaining about the prospect of all these cuts to try to head off any further slashing of their budgets.

Will the complaining prevent future cuts?

It might – but there is no guarantee. If the Conservatives win the next election, there is no knowing how much they would chop off the higher education budget. Certainly, education is not being protected by the Tories like the National Health Service is, and the party has indicated that it will reduce the national debt more rapidly than Labour, which raises the spectre of faster and deeper cuts.

But Arthur and Piatt must be hoping that their noise will deter the Conservative Party as well as Labour from setting about them with an axe. And they must be hoping that their arguments – about training the future workforce and boosting the economy with overseas student spending – wins support from the public because such backing is essential if universities are to be protected.

Why are we making cuts at our universities when other countries are investing more in theirs?

It's a good question, and one that has been asked by the Russell Group. Britain has the second best higher education system in the world – after the US – with 18 of our universities in the world's top 100, according to Times Higher Education World University Rankings. The French President Nicolas Sarkozy has just announced a programme of €11bn investment in higher education in France, Germany is putting €18bn into promoting world-class research while Barack Obama has poured an extra $21bn into federal science spending. The reason France and Germany are investing is that their universities do relatively poorly in the league tables, and they want to improve their standing.

Obama's commitment to science spending shows where his priorities lie (he also reversed opposition to stem cell research). If there was more public support for universities, our politicians might do the same.

How can support for universities be nurtured?

The vast majority of the population in the UK has not attended university. Although the participation rate has now reached 43 per cent, that has only happened relatively recently, so the bulk of people have no experience of university life and do not appreciate the part higher education plays in improving society and acting as a generator for the economy. With time, that should improve.

But universities can do their bit to build support in their local communities and the nation at large by forming links with companies and other organisations, putting on courses to train workers in local firms and generally opening their doors to the public. That way, they should be able to raise more money and make more friends and show that they are not mere ivory towers.

How do universities help the country out of recession?

Higher education institutions are keen to argue that they are instrumental in getting Britain back into positive economic growth because they provide the entrepreneurial students and the start-up companies that are going to make a difference. There is little evidence, however, that they are able to turn the economy around in the short term or have much effect on a recession. Universities are in the business of providing long-term benefits to a nation. Those long-term benefits are important because they give companies and other organisations the skills and ideas they need to prosper and be healthy. Governments ignore that at their peril.

Should universities be viewing the cuts as an opportunity rather than a punishment?

Yes, if they can. Lord Mandelson wants the cuts to force the higher education sector to adapt. He has said that they need to change what they offer to students to meet their needs and the employment needs of the economy.

It will only be by becoming more independent of the state and finding external sources of funding that universities will become stronger and able to weather the many further challenges they are bound to face.

Will British universities survive the impending funding squeeze?

Yes...

* It will jeopardise Britain's overseas student market, which generates £2.9bn a year for universities as well as off-campus expenditure of £2.3bn

* Hundreds of courses will close; job losses and bigger classes are certain

* It will undermine a system that contributes £33.4bn – 2.3 per cent of GDP – to the economy

No...

* The cuts are manageable and universities are showing they're already making cuts without undue effect

* Every other sector of state funding is preparing for austerity; it's right that higher education pay its share

* It will force them to look for alternative sources of finance and find new friends in local communities

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Qualified Nursery Practitioner - Sevenoaks

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Room Leader - Nursery

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Assessor / Trainer

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join ...

Ashdown Group: Payroll Manager - London - £200 p/d.

£190 - £200 per day: Ashdown Group: Payroll & Finance Manager - Covent Garden,...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum