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

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home