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Universities: Funding

Volume 719: debated on Monday 7 June 2010


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how much university funding has been cut from the academic year 2010–11.

My Lords, in December last year, the previous Administration made a higher education funding reduction of £449 million on their original plans. By focusing the previously announced university modernisation fund on only high-quality proposals, we were able to support both 10,000 extra student places for 2010-11 and to make available an additional £50 million to fund these. The overall effect of changes in university funding in England in 2010-11 will therefore be a reduction of some £379 million on original plans.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of what a rollercoaster the previous Government and this Government have put universities on? The funding was down by £400 million in November last year, was up again in March and is now down again. Given that the universities are only one part of the BIS budget and the only non-ring-fenced part of the education budget, they are taking a quite disproportionate cut in funding as a result of the changes that have been announced. Is this wise, given that it is widely acknowledged that the new jobs will have to come from the knowledge economy? He may wish to reply as his predecessor on the other Benches did—that the university sector has benefitted enormously from increases in the first 10 years of this century—but is he aware that these made good the neglect of the previous 20 years and that we have only just caught up with the position that we were in earlier?

My Lords, universities are not taking a disproportionate cut. One has to remember that direct public funding is not the only source of university funding in this country. It will be tough for all those receiving public spending in the next few years, but we are conscious that the science budget has to be protected as an essential part of rebuilding our manufacturing base, and that university education and technical education feed directly into regaining economic growth.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the United Kingdom has four or five of the top 10 universities in the world, despite our spending as a proportion of GDP on higher education being less than half that of the United States and less than 13 OECD countries? Surely, to cut funding to universities would be shooting ourselves in the foot.

We have a highly diverse university sector in the United Kingdom. There are now some 150 higher education institutions, which range from Oxford University, Cambridge University and Imperial College, all of which are world-class and within the top 10 Shanghai rankings, to Cumbria University, Northampton University and others, which provide equally valuable but very different education foundation degrees and part-time education for others. We are conscious that we are dealing with a complex sector, which has expanded by 25 per cent in terms of the number of students in the past 15 years.

My Lords, what is the Government’s response to the lobbying by the Russell group to lift the cap on university fees? How does that square with the commitment of the Liberal Democrats at the election to abolish tuition fees?

The noble Lord will be aware that the previous Administration kicked this into the long grass, as previous Governments have often done, by establishing the Browne review—The Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance—which is well under way and due to report later this year. When we have that report, which deals with full-time and part-time funding—this Government pay a lot of attention to the importance of part-time students—we will consider those proposals and will respond.

My Lords, what steps will the Government take to ensure that the pattern of cuts imposed by different institutions in response to falling resources does not endanger strategically important subjects—for example, Arabic, other languages and even chemistry?

That is a very complex question. I am conscious that discussions are under way in the British Academy on the teaching of unusual foreign languages, which is rather different from the future of chemistry and STEM subjects. We are conscious of the need to protect those specialist subjects, but, as I have emphasised, the interests of the top 10 universities in Britain and those providing very worthwhile foundation degrees are part of a highly diverse sector and we need to consider all those interests.

My Lords, do the Government intend to adhere to the Leitch target that by 2020 more than 40 per cent of adults will have a university degree? In the light of the inevitability of belt-tightening, and given the mess that the previous Administration have left us in, how do the Government intend to adhere to that target?

As the noble Baroness will be aware, this Government are less committed to targets for everything than their predecessor and are much concerned about improving the quality of technical education, apprenticeships and the like. We are not so worried about the target of 40 per cent. However, since the number of people reaching the age of 18 will fall in the next 10 years, without further expansion of university education the proportion of 18 year-olds going to university may increase.

My Lords, there has been a 16 per cent increase in demand for university places. The previous Government pledged an additional 20,000 places. The Conservative manifesto promised 10,000 extra. But now we see a cut of 10,000. Does that make sense, given the previous Minister’s response about the need for high-tech manufacturing? As another speaker has said, we need more people with more high qualifications in a knowledge economy.

The noble Lord’s use of statistics reminds me of the use made by the Daily Mail. Looking at the cuts and proposals, it appears that last December the previous Government proposed a cut of 6,000 places, and then later an increase of 20,000. The new Government have come up with an increase of 10,000. I make that a net increase of 4,000 places on the original proposed cut of 6,000, not a reduction.