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UK: Higher education funding in the cross-hairs

The month of October brought profoundly unsettling news to the higher education community in the UK. Lord Browne’s long-anticipated report, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in England was released on 12 October, followed one week later by the Spending Review 2010, presented by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Both documents shook the foundations of the institutional funding and student finance mechanisms currently in place in the country, with significant aftershocks still anticipated.

The Browne Report is the product of a nearly year-long review conducted by a high-level panel tasked with making recommendations to ensure that higher education in the UK remains financially sustainable, accessible to all interested and talented students, and of “world class” quality in terms of teaching. The report finds that the best way to achieve this is to focus on six main “principles”, perhaps the most groundbreaking among these being the first, whereby “there will be no single fixed price for higher education”. Higher education institutions (HEIs) could establish whatever fee levels they feel are appropriate, although if they charge tuition beyond GBP 6 000, they will be subject to paying a levy to “cover the costs to Government of providing students with… upfront finance”. HEIs would also be responsible for convincing students that the costs charged are consistent with value delivered. The government is advised to largely eliminate its block grants to HEIs in support of teaching, except where this funding concerns “priority courses” (such as medicine, science and technology), based on “the wider benefits they create” for society as well as their generally higher delivery costs which cost-conscious students might avoid.

Meanwhile, the Spending Review provides the government’s specific objectives—department by department—for “Britain’s unavoidable deficit reduction plan”, organising its arguments under the headings of growth, fairness, reform, and a commitment to national defence and security. For the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, where the higher education budget resides, the goal is to realise an overall cost reduction of 25% by 2014/15. Adjustments to higher education spending are expected to account for 40% of this savings. In keeping with the Browne Report, the government proposes a massive reduction in the teaching grants to universities, but continuing to invest steadily in “world class science” and research. Still, the science budget will also be required to realise GBP 324 million in savings through “efficiency” by 2014/15 and the yearly allocations are not envisaged to be adjusted for inflation.

The future of teaching within those programmes not considered priorities in UK higher education is decidedly uncertain. The protection of research funding is welcome news in an otherwise bleak funding outlook, but the lack of an increase in the research budget is still a cause for significant worry if the UK aims to remain a high-level player in the global race to innovate. The next several years will unquestionably present a difficult financial situation for UK higher education.

Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education (full report) Spending Review 2010 (full report)