UK: Top universities reject extra places

English universities were last week given just 48 hours to accept 10,000 extra university places in priority areas, including science and technology for the coming 2009-10 academic year. But they will receive no additional state funds so 13 universities almost immediately declined the offer. A further 16 universities, most of them smaller research intensive institutions, later also refused to accept further places.

Universities had until late last Thursday to tell the Higher Education Funding Council if they would accept the places allocated to them in a circular on Wednesday. Any rejected places were to be redistributed across the rest of the sector within 24 hours.

The government has agreed to cover the cost of student support for the places but universities will not receive any teaching grant. Many research-intensive institutions confirmed they would turn down the extra places because they were only part-funded.

Thirteen almost immediately declined and 11 belong to the Russell Group of leading research intensive universities which has 16 English universities among its 20 members.

Those that refused include Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College and King's College. In a statement, the group's Director General Dr Wendy Piatt said: "Maintaining quality is sacrosanct and the Russell Group is concerned about underfunded extra students - there is already a funding shortfall for teaching at our universities."

Of the two universities outside the group, Exeter, a member of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, is headed by Professor Steve Smith, President of UniversitiesUK, which represents all UK universities.

London Metropolitan University, a member of the million+ group largely composed of former polytechnics, is required to repay overfunding caused by massive under-reporting of student drop-out rates and is struggling to balance its books.

The funding council has commissioned an independent review of its handling of the issue by Sir David Melville, former vice-chancellor of the University of Kent.

The newer universities have received the largest share of the additional places in the funding council's allocation. Manchester Metropolitan University was offered the most (341), followed by Kingston (329) and Sheffield Hallam (234). In the final distribution, Manchester Metropolitan University extra places were increased to 519 and Kingston's to 501.

It is likely that all 10,000 places will have to be allocated later this month during clearing - the fast-track process under which applicants who failed to make the grade for their chosen universities scramble for a vacancy at another.

The funding council has made clear to universities the new places "relax but not remove" the restriction on increases in full-time undergraduate and postgraduate teaching certificates imposed when universities were "asked" to avoid exceeding increases beyond 2008-09 admissions.

The courses will be in priority areas, including biological and related health sciences (excluding psychology, sports science and those that are primarily practice-based), physical sciences (excluding geography), mathematical and computer science, engineering, technology, economics, and business studies.

The government will fund financial support for the extra students over the duration of their higher education courses through maintenance grants and loans to cover tuition fees for full time students.

But the cost will be offset by reprioritising existing budgets within the Department for Business, Enterprise and Skills, and by reducing an optional five-year holiday on repayment of student loans to two years.