Richard Garner: Coalition cuts will leave universities scraping by, yet MPs may still torpedo fees proposal

Unlike in the UK, the US and Germany have used the recession to invest in higher education
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The Independent Online

No one could possibly deny that the Coalition Government will have its work cut out in the coming months as it tries to ensure universities receive adequate financing.

Public spending cuts totalling up to 35 per cent have been agreed for next week's Comprehensive Spending Review.

The nightmare scenario is that MPs then sound the death knell for any hope of increasing finance through raising student fees.

It took a charm offensive in 2006 by the then Education Secretary Charles Clarke and his Higher Education minister Alan Johnson to get a wafer-thin majority for setting the current cap on fees at £3,290 a year. (Alan Johnson memorably said of that time: "I was charming, Charles was offensive.")

I doubt whether Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Universities minister David Willetts could mount a similar double act. Of course, the make-up of the Commons has changed markedly since then but it is fair to expect the same pressures to resurrect themselves.

The 38 Liberal Democrat MPs who are not government ministers and who all signed a pledge in the election campaign to vote against any fees rise, will find themselves under intolerable pressure in the months to come. We could see a repeat of the situation endured by the Callaghan government in the late 1970s when survival depended on the votes of a handful of Northern Irish MPs.

Of course, when asked for a solution to this potential crisis, it is tempting to trot out the time-honoured phrase: "I wouldn't start from here."

Most other Western governments – most notably the United States and Germany – have viewed the world economic crisis as a sign not to retrench but to invest in their higher-education systems as a necessary part of investing in the skills that will be needed in the future.

In the UK, however, it was higher education that was first in line for cuts in spending (indeed almost the only service singled out for that dubious pleasure) by the previous Labour government which announced cuts of just over £500m just before Christmas. This precedent has been enthusiastically seized upon by its successors with the result that the sector is fearing cuts of up to 35 per in the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October.

It is probably too late to urge caution on George Osborne's team at the Treasury but it would be as well to warn them not to be too enthusiastic to reduce university spending – and bear in mind rises in students fees are not a given.

If the extra revenue does start to flow to the sector as a result of the Browne review, it would surely make sense to pencil in the necessary cuts after the result of this is known rather than before – despite the current obsession (in most cases justified) for three-year spending reviews.