British Universities Will See Budget Cuts of 40% Under National Austerity Plan

October 22, 2010

Higher education will suffer major budget cuts under a comprehensive spending review released last week by the British government.

The report outlines the coalition government's plans to address the largest budget deficit Britain has faced outside of wartime. Almost all government departments, excluding health and overseas aid, will see their budgets cut by an average of 19 percent over four years, according to the review. Cuts of 83 billion pounds (about $131-billion) are expected to result in the elimination of 490,000 public-sector jobs.

The news for British universities is particularly bad: Excluding research support, which will remain flat, the amount of money going to higher education in England will decline by 40 percent over the next four years, from 7.1 billion pounds (about $11-billion) to 4.2 billion pounds (about $6.6-billion). Universities in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, which are financed from different budgets, are also likely to face significant cuts.

The research budget will be frozen at 4.6 billion pounds (about $7.3-billion), "to ensure the UK remains a world leader in science and research," the review said.

Within the higher-education budget, the government has said it will continue to pay for teaching in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That has raised concern among some academics that the social sciences and humanities may be at risk.

In a public address outlining the spending review, George Osborne, the finance minister, referred to universities as "jewels in our economic crown" but made clear that financial upheaval is ahead.

Britain's predominantly public higher-education system is heavily dependent on government support. For most institutions, especially those that are not research-intensive, that financing forms the largest portion of their budgets.

To cope with such drastic cuts, the government plans to allow universities to raise tuition beginning in 2012. That follows a measure suggested last week by a government-commissioned panel led by Lord Browne of Madingley, a former chief executive of BP. The panel encouraged the removal of the government-set tuition cap of 3,290 pounds, or about $5,200 a year, at universities in England.

Institutions at Risk

The government took pains to highlight ways in which it will continue to make higher education accessible. That includes a new 150-million-pound ($237-million) scholarship fund for disadvantaged students and a loan scheme to support full- and part-time students. Part-time students do not now have access to government loans.

Neither the protection of the research budget nor other forms of support, however, was much cause for celebration at British universities.

"It is hard to see the rationale behind slashing college and university budgets when they generate massive economic growth for the country and when the alternative is more people on the dole and the state losing out on millions in tax revenues," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, in a written statement. "It's no good the chancellor [Mr. Osborne] describing universities as the jewel in our economic crown and then following those warm words up with massive cuts. Every MP [member of Parliament] with a college or university in or near their constituency should be clear that the cuts will put those institutions at risk."

Meanwhile, advocates of tuition increases suggested that the government has not gone far enough.

"The decision to maintain the research budget for the next four years and to ring-fence this funding provides research-intensive universities and their business partners with a much-needed degree of reassurance about the government's long-term commitment to science and innovation," said Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which comprises Britain's top 20 research-intensive universities, in a written statement. But, she added, "We are also concerned about the size of the cuts to rest of the higher-education budget. If the UK's world-class universities are to perform their vital role as the engine room of economic recovery, the government must allow universities to ask for higher graduate contributions as recommended by Browne."

Some analysts wonder if all higher-education institutions in Britain can survive such cuts.

"Some universities are really going to be struggling and will probably fail," said Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a British think tank.