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Universities: Finance

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 14 January 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the comments of the Russell Group about university finance.

My Lords, it is one of the functions of a lobby group to press for more resources, but the Russell Group’s recent comments do no justice either to the greatly increased funding that we have provided for higher education or to universities’ own underlying strength.

I thank the Minister for that reply but, despite what he said, does he not acknowledge that the public sector cash cuts in the year ahead, as explained by the Russell Group, amount to about one-third in total? How can the Government be confident that the UK’s leading research-intensive universities—indeed, the UK’s world-leading research base—can continue to thrive in the face of what one must acknowledge is a very sharp reduction?

My Lords, there is a reduction because higher education has its part to play in the country’s recovery from the difficulties that the economy has had over the past two years. However, this is against a background where 25 per cent extra has been spent on higher education since 1997. Therefore, the issue ought not to be exaggerated. When the Russell Group indicated in its comments to the Guardian newspaper that the higher education system is teetering on the brink of collapse, that was clearly an exaggeration.

My Lords, alongside the Russell Group concerns, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that an extra £1.6 billion of cuts to the science and university budgets will be needed to achieve Ministers’ targets of halving the national debt by 2013. Can the Minister say how such cuts would impact government aspirations for increasing take-up in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the much valued STEM subjects?

My Lords, the latter aspect of the noble Baroness’s question is indeed a government priority. On the Institute for Fiscal Studies, just as it is the role of a lobby group to lobby for more resources, a research institute is concerned to examine how the Government might approach reducing the deficit. However, at the present time the institute is involved in conjecture, not in analysis of government plans.

Does not the Minister recognise that the line of argument that he is using is pretty unconvincing? Although he is correct to say that additional resources were provided between 1997 and last year, the implication must be that, if these cuts can be carried out without severe damage to universities, the Government have been paying the universities far too much taxpayers’ money.

My Lords, we are concerned to provide extra opportunities in higher education as rapidly as we can. We have a proud record of a very large increase in the number of students in universities over the last decade. There is no doubt that that expansion has been damaged in so far as we will not be able to continue to expect an increase in student participation at the same rate as over the past decade. However, that is a consequence of the economic crisis that we are in. The universities will, on mature reflection, recognise that they have a role to play with regard to public expenditure in the same way as anyone else who is in receipt of it.

Does my noble friend agree that everybody who is in receipt of government funding has to face the same reality as Governments at this time? They must seriously think how they can get much more value out of what they receive and face up to the need to find economies.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for those comments. I add the obvious point that public funding represents just over half the resources that the Russell Group universities, for instance, receive. They are not totally dependent on the public purse. In recent years, of course, through government help and strategy, they have increased their ability to obtain resources elsewhere.

Has it not been clear for years that the “poly” bit of the polytechnic experiment has failed, while the former technical departments often remain excellent? Therefore, is not one obvious place to look for cuts the humanities departments of the former polytechnics?

The noble Lord needs to examine the relationship between the courses that are provided and the employment prospects of those who graduate from those universities. Certain of what he referred to as the former polytechnics and new universities have a very good record in that respect. When it comes to the priorities that were identified in an earlier question from the Liberal Benches, there is no doubt that the new universities have a very important role to play.