Leading article: Higher education, too, must adapt to more austere times

After a spending bonanza, universities have fat that can be trimmed

Share
Related Topics

The universities of England received the dreaded news yesterday, and for the overwhelming majority, it was as bad as they had feared. Almost three-quarters will see their funding for next year severely reduced or frozen in real terms – which elicited a furious response from lecturers' representatives and some vice-chancellors.

Not that they had not been warned. With the NHS and schools assured that their budgets would be protected, higher education had been waiting for the axe to fall. But this does not make the experience any more tolerable. The universities have enjoyed a bonanza since Labour came to power; this is the first major reduction in funding for 13 years, and, whoever wins the election, it is unlikely to be the last. Higher education must share the national pain of austere times.

The distribution of funds announced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England yesterday offered some useful pointers about official thinking on this score. Worst hit, by and large, were the newer universities. The Russell Group of 20 leading establishments emerged less badly, while the top five universities for research – Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College London and Manchester – together received one third of the funds available. This amounts to a blessing on the creation, or preservation, of an elite designed to hold its own with the world's best. In the global world, this is as necessary as it is inevitable.

But there are other pointers, too. Priority has been given to universities with specialist departments in science, maths and technology – subjects where Britain has long had a shortage of expertise, but which also tend to be more expensive to teach. If, as is forecast, the number of university places overall is set to fall, it is right that students are gently channelled into areas where skills are most needed. For all the complaints that will come from champions of the liberal arts, this is nothing like a wholesale redirection of funds, but a helpful nudge towards a higher education sector better tailored to the country's future requirements.

Nor is a decline in the number of university places necessarily a bad thing. The rapid expansion of tertiary education has been a success for this government, with applications continuing to rise, despite fee increases and, for most, less generous assistance from the state. But the Government's target of getting 50 per cent of school-leavers into higher education was always of dubious worth. A little more selectivity could help raise standards and reduce drop-out rates. There is also an argument for speeding up the Browne review of student funding, with a view to freeing, or removing, the cap on tuition fees sooner than might have been envisaged.

On the negative side, however, any decline in the number of places and any rise in fees risk leaving would-be students from poorer families at an even greater disadvantage than they already are. The provision of more bursaries, an extension of needs-blind admission and better information about available grants should all help, but they will go only part of the way.

In the immediate future, higher education as a whole will have to look much more critically at how its spends its money – from the salary rises granted to many vice-chancellors in recent years, through the building projects that habitually run over budget, to the actual contact hours between teacher and student. After a period of comparative largesse, all universities must learn to do more with less.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Recruitment Genius: Front End Developer / Web Designer

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leader in the e-cigarette ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leader in the e-cigarette ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Rocky Fire in California earlier this month, where 9,000 firefighters tried to contain a blaze that ravaged 60,000 acres  

Climate change: A 'pause' in global warming? Not on this evidence

Steve Connor
The author at the The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival  

I love the Edinburgh Book Festival's audiences, although sometimes they do make me wonder

Howard Jacobson
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future