Writing in an open letter in The Guardian, Russell Group chairman Michael Arthur warned that: “It has taken more than 800 years to create one of the world’s greatest education systems and it looks like it will take just six months to bring it to its knees.”
The letter comes after Alistair Darling announced a £600m cut to the higher education funding in the pre-budget report, on top of over £300m already specified to be cut. However the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that budget reductions could potentially reach as high as £2.5bn if the government is to reach its target of halving the national debt by 2013.
The Russell Group letter states: “Our gold standard system could be replaced with one of silver, bronze or worse, under swinging cuts to the funding of higher education and science recently announced by the government. Such huge cuts in university budgets would have a devastating effect not only on students and staff, but also on Britain’s international competitiveness, economy and ability to recover from recession.
“If politicians don’t act now, they will be faced with meltdown in a sector that is vital to our national prosperity. They have been warned.”
The criticisms prompted Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, to publicly defend the cuts. Writing in the Guardian, he explained: “The reality is different. While universities cannot escape the coming squeeze on public finances, nor are they under any kind of threat. We are absolutely committed to increasing the opportunities for young people to study at university, and we are clear that excellent research and teaching are vital to this country’s competitiveness and character.”
Higher education minister, David Lammy, writing in the Policy Review Magazine, said: “I suspect that it will be a good few years before universities can expect to see any really significant upturn in their income from the public purse. One reaction to that would be simply for them to cut their cloth and to accept cost-cutting and contraction as the price of dependence on the taxpayer. I think some may go down that short-sighted route.”
Although the University of Glasgow is a member of the Russell Group, it is unlikely that the University will be directly affected by cuts due to education’s devolved policy status in Scotland.
However Laura Laws, President of the Students’ Representatives Council (SRC), warned that a potential increase in tuition fee caps in England as a result of the budget cuts will have a knock-on effect on Scottish institutions.
She said: “The next few years are going to be very hard for universities, especially those in Scotland. If the cap is lifted on top-up fees in England, there will be serious ramifications for Scottish universities. Our future lies in the hands of the Scottish Government. The SRC remains in favour of free education, and is working with organisations throughout Scotland to put pressure on the Government to find a solution.”
A spokesperson stated that the Scottish Government is committed to funding higher education in the future, highlighting an increase in funding for Scottish universities in the recent budget report. She said: “The draft Budget sees a real terms increase of 2.1 per cent in universities’ resource budgets. Universities have a cash increase of just over £35million in resource funding since 2009/10. The funding of English universities is a matter for the UK Government. Scotland’s universities have a leading international reputation and the Scottish Government is committed to supporting them.”
Universities Scotland, the group which represents Scotland’s 21 universities and higher education colleges, also backed the recent budget settlement in Scotland.
A spokesman said: “Universities in Scotland are grateful that their funding was protected in the current Scottish government budget. We know that the public purse is tightening and we are now working to make a case to protect university funding in the years to come.”