Tough times ahead for Universities

14 Mar 2010

The Guardian HE Summit, which I chaired at the end of the week, brought several warnings of tough times to come for British universities.

The clear message was that the sector is going to have to adapt fast to the new financial setting.

In a passionate, campaigning closing speech, Steve Smith, the President of Universities UK, warned of 'an extraordinarily bumpy financial future'. He said universities had been 'treated more roughly' than other parts of the public sector.

He said a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest there will be no real terms increases in public funding for universities until 2018. That, he added, would be worse than the cuts made during the Thatcher years when spending went up in real terms in every year bar one.

Looking to the coming summer,  he said there would be 'perhaps 6,000 fewer student places'. That could mean some 235,000 students who will not get places.

He also told universities that they will have to make the public argument for investment in universities as higher education will be in competition with the NHS for taxpayer's money. 'We have to get better at articulating what the sector should be like  - the next decade cannot be business as usual'.

'The game we are in is mitigating the cuts,not stopping them', he added.

The Summit heard several presentations on the growing global competition in higher education, with India and China expanding their university systems fast just as we are seeing an end to expansion.

Dr Dirk Van Damme, head of the Centre fort Educational research and Innovation at the OECD, had some words of warning for UK universities, based on comparative international data.

Looking at the overseas market, he advised UK universities that they needed to diversify, looking beyond Asia, where recruitment has been good, to the untapped potential of Africa. He also warned that China - which has sent large numbers of student to the UK - is now keeping the brightest of its young people at home.

He also showed figures which revealed that the UK has a very high percentage of foreign doctoral students (43% of the total) and that this was 'not sustainable'.

And on university costs, he argued that the UK  was now getting 'very expensive' with the third highest tuition fees for students after the USA and Korea. He said fees were now reaching their ceiling, especially when several European countries still offered free tuition to overseas students.

 There will be more on the summit in Tuesday's Education Guardian


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