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Margin Notes

The disaster awaiting U.K. universities

Funding for higher education to be cut by 40 percent over four years.


Last week, the prospects for universities in the U.K. went from apocalyptic to merely disastrous. For several weeks, rumours were flying that the coalition government, under its comprehensive spending review, would cut by up to 80 percent the amount it funds universities. In the end, when the spending review was announced on Oct. 20, annual funding for higher education will be cut by just 40 percent over four years, from £7.1 billion to £4.2 billion (roughly, $11.5 billion to $6.8 billion CDN).

I say “just,” of course, sarcastically. A cut of that magnitude is a disaster for higher education in the U.K. I fully understand that the country is in dire financial straits, but kneecapping its university system seems a shortsighted way to respond.

The news gets worse: what funding that remains will be focused on teaching the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It appears public funding for teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences may come to an end.

Canadian universities lived through a painful period of retrenchment in the 1990s when the federal government cut transfer payments to the provinces. From the beginning of the ’90s until around 2001, per student funding in Canada dropped from around $17,000 to $14,500, or nearly 15 percent. Painful, yes, but nothing like what is in store for the U.K.

And, it should be pointed out, even in today’s tough fiscal situation in Canada, nobody is talking seriously about cutting funding for higher education. Continued investments in higher education are seen here, rightly, as key to improving and strengthening Canada’s economic performance over the long run.

Quoted in the Guardian newspaper, Steve Smith, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Exeter University, had this to say: “The UK’s competitors face the same deficit reduction challenges as we do, but they have decided to invest in higher education at this crucial time, not cut it.”

To make up the lost revenue outlined in the spending review, universities in the U.K. are being instructed to look to the Browne Report, an independent review of higher education funding and student financing released just prior to the comprehensive spending review. The report was authored by Lord Browne of Madingley – or, as I like to think of him, Lord Brown of Maddeningly, as in maddeningly obtuse proposals.

The Browne Report proposes, among other things, that universities be free to charge whatever they want in tuition. However, the report did suggest a “soft” cap of £6,000, meaning universities would keep the full amount of fees collected up to that level, but would have to give back an increasing proportion of the fees the higher they rise above the £6,000 cap.

There is much more both to the spending review and the Browne Report, but suffice it to say that if both come to pass, the university landscape will be utterly transformed. Among the predictions: the shuttering of some universities; a rise in privatized higher education; and, not surprisingly, massively increased student indebtedness.

Another result might well be a richer pool of applicants for academic jobs in Canada, as U.K. professors look to move here.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Graeme / October 26, 2010 at 12:12


    At today’s dollars, that soft cap translates into roughly $9600 CDN. If universities were to impose that, then it would be cheaper for UK students to fly to and from Canada and pay international fees than it would be to simply pay those fees.

    I’d also be curious to see how the cuts in the mid-90s compare to what the UK is proposing, with inflation accounted for.

  2. John O'Brian / October 26, 2010 at 14:26

    The “soft cap” is not much of a cap at all, really. Unis would only lose out on (IIRC) 2% of every £1000 past £6000. If it was implemented nation-wide, every school would economically induced to test the upper limits of the market: if *I* don’t charge £15,000, the next school over will, and they’ll be able to offer more because of it.

    The UK NUS has a really good, point-by-point analysis of just why Browne is so “maddeningly obtuse”:

  3. Adam Crymble / October 28, 2010 at 15:28

    I just moved to the UK from Canada to do a humanities PhD and will likely directly be affected by these cuts, but for you to stand in Canada and say the UK government is being shortsighted by specifically targetting higher education for cuts is ill informed.

    Every segment of society has had to face sweeping cuts like those coming to higher education. For a few weeks now every day the papers show a new group who has to suffer – parents, the poor, students, the military. The fact is, there isn’t enough money.
    Yes, British higher education and students will suffer. But to suggest the cuts are a mistake doesn’t give full consideration to the gravity of the problem here. Even on Canada’s worst day in this recession we were no where near in the financial trouble that Britain is.

    A little context, please.

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