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University cuts 'a kick in the teeth'

Ministers announced plans to reduce student numbers today as part of the most swingeing public spending cuts in higher education for a generation.

Universities will have to grapple cuts of nearly £700 million in their budgets next year, Business Secretary Vince Cable said.

The funding cut, which comes into effect before they can expect any increased revenue from rises in tuition fees, was described as “a Christmas kick in the teeth” by lecturers’ leaders.

Under it, student numbers will be frozen this year – but funding for an extra 10,000 places agreed by the Coalition Government for this September will be withdrawn the following year.

The announcement comes as universities face an unprecedented demand for student places next September.

Up to 209,000 youngsters denied a place this autumn will be competing with those anxious to avoid paying higher tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year coming into force in September 2012.

It is only the second cut in student numbers in two decades. The only other time numbers were reduced was in the run-up to the introduction of top-up fees five years ago, Since then, they have steadily risen with a total of 1.2million student places funded this year. This is planned to drop to 1.19 million in 2012/3.

In a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England – the body responsible for distributing finance for universities, Business Secretary Vince Cable said: “As a provisional planning assumption, universities and colleges should work on the basis that this pulse of additional entrant places will not not be repeated in 2012/3 and so the extra 10,000 places will not be repeated.”

The money was used to provide extra places in the so-called STEM subjects - science, maths, engineering and technology – deemed essential for the future of the economy.

The biggest victim of this year’s cuts is capital funding – slashed from £532 million this year to £223 million next.

The teaching budget will also be reduced from £4,949 million to £4.645 million – prompting fears of further redundancies and axed courses. Grants for research will also be reduced from £1,618 million to £1, 549 million.

“The Coalition’s Christmas message to the sector is funding cuts, higher fees, fewer university places, a pay freeze and attacks on staff pensions,” said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union.

“The Government seems to think that the sector will be able to deliver more for less and students will be happy to pay three times the price. This is absolute madness.”

Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK – the body which represents vice-chancellors – and vice-chancellor of Exeter University, added: “The strict controls on student numbers means there may again be a considerable number of unplaced UCAS applicants in 2011. This is at a time when we expect to see record numbers applying to university.”

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group – representing 20 of the country’s leading research institutions, added: “This will just make it even more difficult for Russell Group universities to provide a first rate student experience on a par with that provided by much better resourced universities in other countries.”

Meanwhile, students are planning a new demonstration in central London against the planned rises in tuition fees for 29 January.