Universities in boycott threat over funding

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Education Correspondent

Universities may boycott government inspections of their teaching in protest at spending cuts of more than pounds 100m announced in the Budget. At a meeting next month, vice- chancellors will argue that they should no longer co-operate with the quality assessments because they can no longer guarantee the quality of their cash-starved courses.

Other radical options which may be proposed in the aftermath of the cuts could include charging top-up fees and targeting a handful of friendly Tory MPs who might be persuaded to rebel on behalf of the universities. Some universities may be forced to cut numbers, or to recruit more foreign students, who pay higher fees.

The vice-chancellors will meet to discuss a range of proposals amid growing frustration and anger over university funding. Earlier last month they refused to hear a speech by Eric Forth, the education minister, which was due to have been read to them by a senior civil servant. Instead they issued a statement saying that the cuts were "catastrophic" and that they would have to cut student numbers to cope.

The Government says universities can make up for cuts of pounds 51m in their building and refurbishment programmes in the next three years by striking up partnerships with the private sector, but universities say this is unlikely to happen. Cuts of a further pounds 50m are being made in their day- to-day spending.

Vice-chancellors have called for a scheme under which students would repay part of their fees, and this will also be discussed at their next meeting. But neither of the main political parties is likely to commit itself to such a proposal before the next general election.

The executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) will meet this month to draw up a range of options to be discussed when more than 100 university heads meet next month. These are likely to include a boycott of the Teaching Quality Assessments, which are carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

One vice-chancellor, who did not want to be named, said a number of his colleagues would support this option. "There are certainly some vice-chancellors who now believe it will not be possible to maintain quality in this funding regime, and so one option likely to be discussed is the extent to which full participation in quality assessment should be maintained," he said.

A HEFCE spokesman said it was working closely with the vice-chancellors to develop quality assurance arrangements. "In the light of the progress being made it would be extremely surprising if the CVCP wished to take any action which would harm this process."