Higher Education: To the barricades

Academics are taking to the streets in protest against the financial crisis in education. Maureen O'Connor reports

If you find a picket outside your local university this week, don't be surprised. Increasingly lecturers and students are protesting. Local discontent will culminate in a national day of action next Tuesday organised by all the higher education unions. A protest boat will cruise the Thames to alert MPs, at Westminster there will be a rally, a conference and a lobby of Parliament, and in Glasgow a march to a rally in George Square.

What has got academic gowns in a twist is the gradual working through of the implications of the last Budget for higher education. This imposes a three-year regime of cuts on the universities amounting to 10 per cent in total.

In the light of other curbs on public spending this might not appear draconian, but it comes after years of belt-tightening during which student numbers have doubled, staffing has increased only slowly and government funding per student has already been drastically reduced. According to the unions, the academic workforce has been "mugged" and now faces another round of redundancies as the universities do their sums.

South Bank University is cutting its lecturing force by 84, possibly including around 12 compulsory redundancies. The University of Wales College at Newport, facing a deficit next year, is considering 80 job losses. The University of Westminster has frozen recruitment and is offering staff over 60 early retirement. In Winchester students marched against cuts which they say threaten educational quality. And this is just a snapshot of the universities in serious trouble.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is charting the inexorable slide of higher education into financial crisis. Mid-year returns show that unless the universities take action now the whole higher education sector will be pounds 17m in the red next year.

For many universities cutting staff is the only immediate option because any other slack has been squeezed out. They have also been hit hard by a change in their capital funding arrangements which has left them seeking private finance for repairs and replacements. The unions and the vice-chancellors are hoping that the department has realised its mistake on this issue at least. "Private finance is fine for student residences but to imagine that it will turn up to replace broken test-tubes and shore up the walls in the physics department is pie-in-the-sky," one union official commented.

Longer-term an increasing number of individual universities are looking at the option of charging students "top-up" or entry fees to boost their income. When this was mooted at the London School of Economics it was voted down, but the idea has not gone away. Birmingham University is considering fees for first-year students from 1997/8.

Fees are firmly on the agenda of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. Some members are fiercely opposed to the idea on the grounds that fees will deter poorer applicants and mature students from applying. They see a risk of a two-tier system, one for middle-class students whose parents can foot the bill, and one for the rest.

Other vice-chancellors see fees as the only way to maintain quality if thesqueeze continues. The threat is now sufficiently real for the admissions body, Ucas, to have warned prospective students that taking a "year out" this year may be a very bad idea. By the time they take up their place in 1997, Ucas thinks, they may have to pay for it.

In the meantime the universities themselves are wondering whether they can sustain the quality of what is reputed to be a world-class system. If the next round of cuts goes ahead, says David Triesman of the Association of University Teachers, there will be 3,000 job losses next year and perhaps 8,000 over three years.

Because safety concerns limit the size of science and technology classes, the squeeze falls disproportionately on humanities and social science. Increasingly classes are being taken research students working for less than pounds 3 an hour. "We are already hearing of staff-student ratios of 45 and 50 to one in some business and language departments," Mr Triesman says. "Staff morale is falling and quality is being shot to pieces."

It is quality, and the wider threat to the UK's economic well-being, which most concerns Professor David Melville of Middlesex University, vice-chair of the CVCP. "We are now at a crisis point," he says, and he sees no prospect of the Dearing review of higher education having any impact until the year 2000. In the meantime, he says, the latest squeeze could endanger the UK's reputation as a provider of first-class higher education. It is a cut too far.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Belong: Volunteer Mentor for Offenders

This is a volunteer role with paid expenses : Belong: Seeking volunteers who c...

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Health & Safety Support Tutor

£19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Reach Volunteering: Trustees with Finance, Fundraising and IT skills

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses reimbursable: Reach Volunteering: St...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This market leader in the devel...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent