NY Times, October 15, 2010
LONDON — For months, Britain’s universities have warned in apocalyptic terms about the devastating cuts they face as part of the government’s grand plan to reduce public-sector costs. Now, with the government poised next week to announce its spending plans, their worst fears seem about to come true.
Prof. Steve Smith, president of Universities U.K., which represents Britain’s higher-learning institutions, said the government was likely to cut about 80 percent of the current $6.2 billion it pays annually for university teaching, and about $1.6 billion from the $6.4 billion it provides for research.
To make up for the shortfall, universities would have to raise tuition to an average of more than $11,000, Professor Smith said, and doing so would require Parliament to lift the cap on such fees, now set at $5,260.
“It’s a savage cut, and it’s unprecedented, and it’s the government moving out of the funding of higher education,” Professor Smith, vice chancellor of the University of Exeter, said in an interview. “We’ve had a big comfort blanket called state funding, and now we’re being thrown out of the nest.”
Education is just one area where the state plans a major retrenchment. With the government aiming to find $130 billion in savings over the next five years, every department has been asked to plan for cuts as high as 40 percent; the government will present the results in its final spending review on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, interest groups representing virtually ever sector — the arts, the military, transportation and the like — have been pleading that they cannot absorb such drastic shocks to their systems.
The pleading, however, has had little effect.
Britain’s universities, heavily subsidized by the state, already feel pared to the bone after a series of cuts in the past year or so. In anticipation of further cuts, many are beginning to lay off instructors, reduce the number of classes and shut down departments. Some instructors and researchers, dismayed by how little money they are being offered and worried about future financing, have abandoned Britain for more lucrative offers at universities abroad.
Adrian Owen, a renowned neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge and an expert on brain injury, announced recently that he and his team of five researchers were moving to the University of Western Ontario in Canada.
“U.K. science is going through a period of uncertainty, and many of my more senior colleagues said this might not be a bad time to be leaving,” The Guardian quoted Dr. Owen as saying. “There’s nobody in the U.K. putting down $20m saying, ‘We think what you’re doing is really cool; come and do it here.’ ”
Middlesex University said last spring that it intended to close its philosophy department. Cardiff University in Wales announced proposals to reduce the teaching staff in its modern languages department to 10 people, from 22. King’s College London said it would abolish its chair in paleography, the study of ancient handwriting — the only such post in Britain. (After an international outcry, it proposed creating a new position in “paleography and manuscript studies” that would be “fully funded from philanthropic monies.”)
Saying it would scale back departments not underpinned by “world class” research, the University of Southampton closed its department of sports science and stopped offering undergraduate classes in social work last year.
Britain’s universities currently get about $22.4 billion a year from the government. Until about 10 years ago, they charged no tuition. Tuition since then has been capped by law at $5,260 for students from the European Union. (Students from outside Europe pay much higher tuition that more accurately reflects the actual cost of their schooling.)
A report on higher education financing issued this week by John Browne, the former chairman of British Petroleum, proposed lifting the cap and giving universities the right to set their own tuition. But any institution charging more than $9,500 would have to pay the state a levy on the higher rate.
The proposals in Mr. Browne’s report face a rocky time in Parliament, where many members of the Liberal Democrat party, part of the coalition government, are implacably opposed to higher tuition. But Mr. Smith warned that the increase was the only way universities could fill the gap left by the impending budget cuts.
“If we don’t have them, we’re in a mess,” he said. “There’s no alternative source of funding.”
Mr. Browne’s report also proposes withdrawing government support completely from subjects in the arts and humanities and concentrating it in areas he believes contribute more to the economy, like science and engineering.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is philistinism on a large scale,” said Paul Cottrell, the head of policy at the University and College Union, which represents teachers in higher education. Some universities may have to abolish subjects in the humanities, Mr. Cottrell said. “The alternative is to cut costs,” he said, “but as soon as you do that you get a reputation for poor quality, and you lose your overseas students pretty quickly.”
While institutions like Oxford or Cambridge can easily find students willing to pay, higher tuition would probably create problems for smaller, less respected or less research-intensive universities, or for those with poorer students, Mr. Cottrell said.
“The question is whether all institutions would be able to attract students at that level of tuition,” he said. “We think a lot of students will be put off, so demand will fall. And it’s possible that some of our institutions will fail, if their only source of income is teaching funding and they get very little research funding.”
Professor Smith of Universities U.K. said such drastic cuts in government spending were not necessary. Speaking of Prime Minister David Cameron’s notion of “the big society,” he said, “When they say the big society, they mean the small state.”
He added, “I think they’re cutting the university sector because they can, and I think that’s terribly damaging for the future of the country.”