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February 03, 2011

Universities’ woe over further HEFCE budget cuts

University heads face more hardship following the publication yesterday of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s letter detailing their financial awards for 2011-12.

The letter confirms the outline figures revealed in the budget guidance which the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills gave HEFCE in December 2010. But the letter to vice chancellors still held some unpleasant surprises—notably that the projected cuts will start to take effect in the current academic year. 

The cuts mean a £27.6 million, or 1.7 per cent, reduction in the research budget and a £162 million, or 3.5 per cent, cut in funding for teaching.

The university leaders had expected bad news. But they were disappointed by this further evidence of the challenges facing them. Their responses expressed concern about the impact on the country’s research base and economy, warning that the cuts will damage the UK’s ability to pull out of recession.

Science minister David Willetts insisted that the budgetary arrangements would cause only short-term pain. “This is undoubtedly a year of transition for universities. Higher Education, like other areas of public spending, has had to take its share of savings but we have asked HEFCE to protect the teaching funding budget as far as possible,” he said.

Willetts predicted that university income would increase by 10 per cent by 2014-15 as the effects of the tuition-fee reforms began to take effect. He also noted that, “the HE sector will continue to benefit from sustained ring-fenced investment in science and research.”

However, there was concern about the effects of the reduced budget even among institutions expected to benefit most from the funding changes that Willetts’ hopes will give them long-term stability.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of universities said: “Many of our competitors are pumping billions into research and higher education, and our leading universities are already under-resourced in comparison with our international competitors. Maintaining the quality of England’s world-class universities is essential if the country is to work and think its way back to economic growth.”

Libby Ashton, director of the Universities Alliance, expressed similar fears. “We’re now starting to see what these cuts mean for universities. While we support HEFCE’s approach to managing the reduced allocation, we must again question whether the total level of public and private investment in universities is sufficient.”

She pointed out that the UK is one of the only OECD countries reducing investment in science. “Government must lead the race to the top and not let the UK fall into the race to the bottom.”

Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 group of institutions, warned that cutting research spending sent out the wrong signal to international investors and that the withdrawal of Pfizer’s research effort from the UK announced on the same day could be the first of many. “The 1994 Group calls on the Government to come forward with a plan for growth that fully supports university research and the benefits it brings to the UK economy,” he said.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union was also dismayed by the likely impact of research budget cuts on employment opportunities for UK scientists. “This is yet another slap in the face for a sector already reeling from huge cuts to its funding. The government is in complete denial if thinks that UK universities can deliver more for less,” she said.

Only one observer could take see some positive news in a generally gloomy prospect. Phil Willis, chair of the Association of Medical Research Charities, noted that charity funding was an increasingly important element in the university research budget. The AMRC’s 125 members spent £1.1 billion on medical and health research in the UK last year with 80 per cent going to universities.

So “we welcome the news that HEFCE has protected and maintained the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF).  Our evidence is that charities are working in an increasingly difficult fundraising environment with cuts in public expenditure adding to the pressures on them. HEFCE’s announcement represents an important incentive to maintaining their investment in research going forward,” he said.

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