University funding cuts: a view from the chopping block

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Since the 1970s Britain’s universities have expanded rapidly. As university attendance has grown and grown, costs have risen and public sector assistance for individual students has decreased. For instance, until 1997 the government paid for all tuition fees, until this was found to be unaffordable. Alarmingly, universities will now have to find ways to cope with losing up to 80% of their public funding. The recent Browne Review has recommended the reduction of funding to all but ‘priority’ subjects (such as nursing). How can universities balance their books, and how might the cuts affect Southampton?

Prioritise research-led courses

The complex economic benefits of different degrees can be difficult to measure. At the most basic level, some courses (such as sciences and engineering) make more research money for a university than others.

As we reported last year, Southampton has already phased out its Sports Science courses. The University’s justification for this was that those programmes were scrapped because they were not research-led. Southampton in the last year earned over £88 million from research grants and contracts: to maintain this cash flow, it needs to focus on research areas which attract big business. Using this Apprentice-style financial logic, it’s possible that arts and humanities courses might also be ‘economized’.

Increase tuition fees

Higher tuition fees are a vital substitute for public funding, which will be reduced by up to 80%. Of course, higher fees will be enormously unpopular with students, and would also discourage poorer candidates from applying. Southampton will have to watch other top-notch universities closely, as free-market-style competition may develop. In the US, tuition fees range from £32,000 to £1,500 a year, depending on the prestige of the institution and the quality and length of the course. Our Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Don Nutbeam, has said that “Browne’s proposals represent a viable and fair way to secure vital future investment in universities.” Southampton seems likely to charge close to the maximum tuition fee. The future of bursaries and grants is uncertain.

Increase places for international students

There is no limit on the fees which universities can charge international students. Currently, around 10% of Southampton’s students are international, which is not a high figure in relative terms: at the London School of Economics it is 45.9%. Southampton has just risen to 81st in the world’s top 100 universities, and it may use this growing prestige to attract a greater percentage of wealthy overseas students, especially if the tuition fee cap for UK students remains in place. In July, Southampton’s University Council announced plans to raise the percentage of international students to 30%.

Cut jobs

Like all businesses in these troubled times, the higher education sector has had to lay off some employees. Staff at the University of Sussex have decided to strike following plans to axe 115 jobs, many connected with the humanities. Southampton recently implemented a voluntary severance scheme, which offered staff a year’s pay if they agreed to leave. This initiative was aimed to soften inevitable downsizing. Job cuts are more likely to affect administrative staff, but will nevertheless hinder the delivery of quality tuition and academic services.

Abandon new building plans

The University of Cumbria has cancelled a planned £70 million campus in Carlisle, and it’s not the only university to abandon plans for expansion. In theory, Southampton might have saved some jobs rather than building a new bus interchange (£1 million; 50% paid by the council). But in reality, the facilities arms-race between universities remains a high priority, despite scarce funds. Most universities will only ever abandon expansion plans if they are in serious debt, as is the case with Cumbria. New buildings are proudly promoted, and often seem to think that there’s nothing quite like a flashy new tower to amaze potential students. The incredible new Life Sciences building (construction cost: £34 million) is a classic example. Ironically, expensive university buildings will become even more of an attraction for potential students if other universities are unable to afford good facilities.

Sell some land

Some universities own undeveloped land, and the price of large plots stay reasonably steady even during a recession. The University of Gloucestershire has sold its London campus for £9.7 million – very few universities would refuse such a handy cash injection. Southampton considered making Winchester available for sale in May, but eventually rejected the idea. That such a measure was considered is indicative of the dire straits higher education finds itself in.

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