Post-election outlook for universities
04 May 2010
After questioning the main political parties' education spokesmen on the Daily Politics show on BBC2 yesterday, I feel very concerned for the future of higher education.
It is clear that both Labour and the Conservatives are simply waiting to see what the Browne Review will propose before really thinking hard about how to tackle the future funding of universities or how to reform student finance.
Even the Liberal Democrats, who are at least clear about their plans to abolish tuition fees, are vague about future funding.
So the Browne Review, due to report by August, is likely to arrive at an inauspicious time. We look likely to have either a 'hung' Parliament or a minority government. Neither of these scenarios lend themselves to the taking of difficult or potentially unpopular decisions. So further fudge and delay over reform of university funding looks likely.
Meanwhile, once the election is over, we will start to hear the truth about the depth of public spending cuts required to tackle the budget deficit. With areas like the NHS, and possibly schools (depending on the election result), protected, this will mean deeper cuts elsewhere. So universities face a tough time.
A recommendation from Browne to simply raise tuition fees will be hard to implement by government, as this involves heavy up-front costs to the Treasury because of the nature of the loans system, whereby the cost of tuition fees are covered by a student loan only repaid after graduation.
Only a decision to raise interest rates on student loans will generate much new money for the Treasury immediately. And it is hard to see any of that coming back to universities as it will more likely be used to help tackle the budget deficit.
No wonder then that several universities are now looking to boost their intake of overseas students as a way of making up for falling government grant.