Les Ebdon: The many are being sacrificed for the few

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No one will be surprised that a letter from Peter Mandelson, the First Secretary of State, that cut £130m from university funding in 2010-11 and fined institutions for over-recruitment in 2009, appeared on an icy afternoon. With MPs in their constituencies, students at home and university staff about to commence the seasonal break, the hope must have been that no one would notice.

By the end of 2011, university funding will have been cut by almost £500m in three years – many of those hoping to go to university will undoubtedly face renewed difficulties in accessing places in 2010. Universities and their staff, who have gone the extra mile to offer places to people of all ages to help them avoid the dole queue, have been rewarded with a significant reduction in teaching funding.

Make no mistake, these cuts are serious. They were also avoidable. Higher education should have been included in the Government's stimulus package from day one. Instead 22 December will go down as a good day to bury bad news.

Proposals to substitute three-year degrees for two-year degrees are no more than tinkering around the edges. Two-year degrees work for some students – principally those who do not have to fund themselves with part-time jobs – but they cost universities the same.

The Government has shown outstanding commitment to widening participation but, as an end-of-term report, Mandelson's 2010-11 letter wins few marks.

It looks dangerously like protectionism of a few institutions (75 per cent of the protected research funding goes to only 30 universities) and cuts for the many – exactly the opposite of what Labour has stood for. Universities and students will find little seasonal cheer from Lord Mandelson

Professor Les Ebdon CBE is chair of the university think-tank million+ and vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire

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