UK: Coalition cuts university spending

Britain's new Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition has slashed £200 million (US$289 million) from spending on higher education, on top of the £1 billion in cuts made by the previous government over the past few months. The increase in student numbers promised by the outgoing Labour government will be halved from 20,000 to 10,000.

University leaders and the lecturers' union condemned the decision. Professor Steve Smith, President of Universities UK, called it a funding "valley of death".

Smith said universities were already dealing with the impact of more than £1 billion in cuts. A further £200 million would make the task of meeting student demand this summer, without compromising the quality of student experience, even harder.

It was vital to maintain funding per-student, he said. "It is the only way we can hope to maintain the world-leading position of the UK's higher education system."

Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, said members of the 20 elite institutions had a crucial role in helping the country survive the economic downturn and stimulate recovery.

"We welcome the fact that no further cuts to research funding have been signalled but it is important to remember that our competitors in Europe, Asia and the US are pouring more resources into higher education and research as a strategy for coming out of recession," Piatt said.

A similar point was made by Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union. Hunt said the UK's competitors were enhancing opportunities for students, not consigning them to the ever-increasing dole queue.

"Students and their families must wonder what they have done to be treated so badly by this coalition government," she said. "First the Lib Dems renege on their flagship policy to fight against fees and now the opportunity of a university education is being restricted.

"Our competitor countries are increasing the number of graduates to compete in a high-skill knowledge economy. We are denying thousands a place at university and increasing the burden on our benefits system."

Smith said UUK had three core messages: "First, this reduction must be seen in the context of the overall package of baseline reductions which now total some £1.13 billion; second, this makes the 22 June budget and this autumn's [comprehensive spending review] of absolutely critical importance to the future health of the higher education sector.

"Third, it is vital the government implements the recommendations of the Browne review [into higher education funding and student finance] fully and as early as possible.

"We cannot afford for higher education to face a valley of death in funding, as public spending falls and a Browne review that cannot be accepted by Parliament."