University funding: devastating cuts or continued investment?

Russell Group and UCU lining up against government cuts

Rhetoric overload has kicked in pretty early. If we’re not careful we’ll have used the full armoury of adjectives to describe the cuts far too early in the campaign.

The UCU line, as reported in the Guardian, envisages huge class sizes and thousands of academics on the dole. The apocalyptic vision from the Russell Group is 30 university closures and ‘meltdown’ for all others.

Universities in the UK will be among the most overcrowded in the world within three years if savage government cuts to higher education go ahead, ­academics warned today.

The lecturers’ union, UCU, said more than £900m of cuts announced last month would fill lecture halls with “some of the biggest class sizes in the world” by 2013.

Sally Hunt, the union’s general secretary, said that “the dreams of many hardworking parents for their kids to go to university … will be over”. The cuts would send at least 14,000 academics to the dole queue.

The warning comes after top universities accused Gordon Brown of jeopardising 800 years of higher education, saying the cuts – which the Institute for Fiscal Studies says may reach £2.5bn – would “bring them to their knees”.

Leaders of the Russell Group of 20 leading universities, which includes Warwick, Liverpool and Glasgow as well as Oxford and Cambridge, said ministers failed to appreciate one of the “jewels in the country’s crown”. At least 30 universities could disappear and the rest faced possible ­meltdown.

Dramatic stuff (leaving aside the inexplicable omission of the University of Nottingham from the Russell Group list above). So dramatic in fact that it prompted a rather testy response from Lord Mandelson in The Guardian. In short his line is that the government has invested heavily in universities, this is not going to vanish overnight and the cuts are modest in the context of the global funding of HE:

The Russell Group of universities seemed to suggest our higher education system is teetering on the brink of collapse (Universities: cuts will bring us to our knees, 12 January).

“Cuts on university budgets will have a devastating effect,” they said, “not only on students and staff, but also on our international competitiveness, national economy and ability to recover from recession.” But the reality is different. While universities cannot escape the coming squeeze on public finances, nor are they under any kind of threat.

So the reduction of £950m in public funds over the period 2010-2013 is only one part of a complex funding picture. Given that the proposed reductions stretch between now and 2013, is it really reasonable to describe the equivalent of a reduction of under 5% over three years as “swingeing”?

The Russell Group says “cuts of this magnitude in overall funding will impact on the sustainability of our research”. But teaching and research funding – even after the £180m efficiency savings and the reductions in December’s grant letter – will still actually grow between 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. Research funding will grow in real terms this year by 7%.

So, apocalypse now?