Education contradiction

£533m cuts to university funding point to contradiction in Labour policy

Yesterday, in what has been called "a real Christmas kick in the teeth", the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, announced that more than half a billion pounds will be cut from university budgets next year.

The £533m cuts include £263m that had already been set out, with an additional £270m. This will reduce next year's university budget to just £7.3bn.

In another sting, the letter said that universities which over-recruited students this summer after a record number of applications fuelled by the recession will be fined £3,700 for each extra student they accepted. There will be no funding for extra students next year.

But hang on a minute. Isn't this the same government that pledged, back in 1999, to get 50 per cent of all young people into university by 2010?

The government's attitude towards higher education appears to have two clear, but utterly contradictory, strands. The first is the commendable aim to broaden access to education, while retaining the world-class standing of Britain's universities. The second is to give it less and less funding.

I hate to state the obvious, but widening participation was always going to be expensive: more people means greater costs. Indeed, this was the problem Labour faced when it came to power. By the mid-1990s, student numbers had increased hugely over those of the 1970s, but funding per student had dropped by roughly 36 per cent. Hence the introduction of tuition fees in 1999, and top-up fees in 2006, bringing them to their current level of £3,225 annually.

While Labour has failed to up the numbers to 50 per cent of young people -- it was 39.8 per cent in 2007 -- the pressure on universities to get more "bums on seats" has placed an inevitable strain on both quality and funding. The additional tuition fees only go so far to bridge the gap. Oxford University, for example, which steadfastly refuses to compromise its tutorial system of teaching in very small groups, said earlier this year that it loses £8,000 on each undergraduate student.

It cannot be disputed that there is simply not enough money in the pot to pay for our higher education system. But what I can't understand -- perhaps I'm being dense? -- is why and how a government that has placed such an emphasis on "education, education, education" (yes, that had to be in here somewhere) seems so resistant to funding it. In August, the former education secretary Estelle Morris made the point that higher education would be the obvious area to protect for a government that "has made the case for investing in skills and knowledge as the best way to secure all our futures".

Mandelson suggests that universities reduce the length of their undergraduate degree courses to two years instead of three. Such a drastic move should not be undertaken to cut costs. As Michael Arthur, the then chair of the National Student Survey steering group, warned in 2007:

The UK HE system is right up there at second or third in the world after the US in terms of its competitiveness. I'm really worried that in ten to 20 years' time we will be 20th in the world and we are sleepwalking towards that outcome.

In 2006, UK spending on tertiary education was 1.3 per cent of GDP, up from just 1 per cent in 1997 when Labour took over. It's an improvement, but it's not enough -- even in 2006, the actual sum spent was £2.7bn less than for other countries surveyed.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said at the time:

No country that sees itself as a global leader in higher education can be in the bottom half of any table that lists how much money is being spent on higher education.

Her words ring true. Internationally and at home, those cuts could be devastating.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times