University labs 'left unsafe by cash cuts'

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The Independent Online
Drastic cuts in universities' funding are turning their science laboratories into dangerous, antiquated places that do not give students the necessary experience to compete in industry, leading scientists say.

Despite a large increase in GCSE passes in science subjects announced yesterday, universities face a pounds 400 million cut over the next three years in their grant for capital equipment, which is vital to keep laboratories equipped and functioning.

The result of the cut, which represents a 30 per cent fall in funding, is likely to be lower-quality teaching and an exodus of science staff from higher education, said Sir Derek Roberts, provost of University College London (UCL). "If you starve a sheep, you don't wonder whether you lose the mutton first or the wool. You lose the whole animal."

Government claims that universities could attract funding from industry, through schemes like the Private Finance Initiative, are also fallacious, Sir Derek said. "They want to fund research, not a new worktop. They pay corporation tax, and they think, as do we, that the Government should properly fund the universities' infrastructure to do research."

Professor David King, head of chemistry at Cambridge University, said health and safety regulations were being ignored in laboratories all over Britain.

"I believe that much of the research going on in British chemistry departments today is very, very close to the bone in terms of health and safety," he told a press briefing in London. "Much of it might well have to be closed down if investigations are made."

Undergraduates' lack of practical experience, caused by equipment shortages on their courses, is already having a dramatic impact on British industrial competitiveness, Sir Derek added. "Unilever told me recently that if you get a graduate from Holland and one from the UK, you can immediately tell the difference between them when you put them in a lab. The Dutch one will be able to do useful work from day one because they've trained on the same sort of equipment during their course."

A survey by the University of Manchester concluded that universities needed an immediate funding rise of pounds 474 million to bring their leading research laboratories up to contemporary standards.

The Department for Education said: "It is up to the universities how they spend their budgets. It is true that capital funding has been cut but it's because of the opportunities to get private finance."

The root of the problem, according to Sir Derek and a number of eminent academics, is that the Government wants to produce increasing numbers of science graduates using the same or fewer staff on shrinking amounts of cash.

Peter Mobbs, deputy head of the physiology department at UCL, said "My laboratory has not had a major refurbishment in 25 years. I am sure that some of the procedures we carry out would be classed as unsafe if anybody ever came to look at them."

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