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
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia  

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Oliver Poole
Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup