Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling unveiled Labour’s plans to spend £270 million on universities in the upcoming financial year.
Mr Darling called the investment in universities ‘unprecedented’, with almost 400,000 more young people starting university than when Labour came to power in 1997.
The release of Labour’s annual budget plans comes at a significant time, with Britain amid the worst recession in decades and an inevitable general election looming in May.
Consensus of Labour’s Budget, which was revealed by Mr Darling to the House of Commons earlier today, is that the party is taking a ‘sit tight and carry on approach’ to the country’s finances. The party announced unemployment is not as severe as originally anticipated, and borrowing this year should be £11 billion lower than forecast. Leader of Conservative opposition, David Cameron, however called Mr Brown’s party’s financial plans cowardly, and said that the Labour leader ‘would never get a medal for courage’.
If Labour remain in power after the general election expected in May, then the £270 million proposed will be spent on providing an additional 20,000 places at universities across the country, with emphasis on subjects such as science, maths and engineering. The funding will be a one-off lump sum for the 2010-2011 academic year, and Mr Darling said it will ease Parent’s worry that their children will be starting life in the ‘dole queue’. The pledge doubles Conservative plans to propose 10,000 new places.
The promise comes under the government’s plans to guarantee a place for every 16 and 17 year-old in education or training when they leave school this September.
Alongside this, the government announced a £35m university enterprise capital fund to support university innovation and spin-off companies. Other key points within the budget include plans to scrap Stamp Duty for first-time buyers of homes upto £250,000 for this year (double what the previous threashold was, at £125,000), and increased duty on strong cider by 10% above inflation, to begin on Sunday.
The plans come as figures from UCAS, published last month, showed almost a 23% increase in applications on last year.
NUS President Wes Streeting said the extra places would ‘help to ensure that many students with the ability and aspiration to benefit from higher education will not be left out in the cold this autumn.’
The University and College Union also welcomed the news of extra places but questioned who would teach the extra students. Sally Hunt, Lecturers’ Union General Secretary said: ‘Extra places for students should be a cause for celebration, but with jobs at risk in universities […] we will inevitably see larger class sizes and increased workloads for staff who survive the cull.’
The University of Southampton’s Annual Review for 2009 which was released last year had previously anticipated a decrease in public spending for universities. The document, which can be accessed here http://www.soton.ac.uk/finance/central/FA2009.pdf, states ‘We are anticipating a period when public support declines in real terms, and there is a threat to the continuation of large scale capital funding for the University. This has become the primary financial risk facing the University.’
Director of Finance at the University Malcolm Ace helped write the Review; he spoke to the Wessex Scene about the effect the budget will have on the University. He acknowledged that the plans in the budget will mean that Southampton University will be increasing the student intake this year.
Mr Ace, who has been Director of Finance since 2004, said: ‘The University have already received their annual grant in mid March for the upcoming financial year, which this year was slightly reduced from the year before. We don’t believe that this will affect the quality of education at the university.’
He continued: ‘We anticipated that funding may be down in last year’s Annual Review, and this anticipation was correct as our grant was down slightly this year. This will of course affect what we can spend in terms of staff appointment, pay rises and other spending. The University is in a good position. However it was always quite obvious that there was going to be a tightening of public spending on universities across the country. Our main concern at the moment is that an election might change everything.’
Despite Labour’s pledges for extra places, cuts across the university are still a focal point for debate. The Daily Echo reported last week that 200 positions at the university intend to be cut, and tomorrow students at the University will demonstrate outside the Jubilee Sports Hall against the closure of the Sport Studies Degree Programme. Mr Ace’s thoughts echo those of students across the country, with university funding a hot topic for parties in discussion in the up running to the imminent election.
What do you think of the budget and the effect it will have on students at the university? Will you be considering it in your decision to vote later this year? Leave your comments below.