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.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

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

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.