Third of Britain’s universities in real danger as a result of cuts

New research by the UCU has revealed that more than one in three of England’s universities could find themselves in real trouble as a result of government cuts.

Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union

Universities are one of our great success stories. However, new research released by my union today has revealed that more than one in three of England’s universities could find themselves in real trouble as a result of government changes to higher education.

The report, Universities at risk – the impact of cuts in higher education spending on local economies, places 49 of England’s 130 higher education institutions at ‘very high’, ‘high’, or ‘high-medium’ risk of serious impact from government funding cuts to university teaching, which could leave them vulnerable to a merger or, in the worst-case scenario, closure.

Contrary to some accusations, notably from former anti-fees advocate Danny Alexander, we are not scaremongering. It’s time university leaders and MPs woke up and realised what is happening here – an 80% cut has to be paid for somehow and by someone.

If no universities are at any risk why did nine out of ten university bosses privately tell the BBC that they expect a university to shut within the decade? Vince Cable recently said institutions were struggling but no universities came out and challenged him.

The head of Universities UK is being used by the government to promote higher fees. Why is he not battling against plans to cut his universities’ teaching budgets by 80%? The sector’s fear to speak out will be its undoing. It is ridiculous to accuse us of causing problems for the sector. We seem to be alone in trying to expose them.

Universities are a major player in their local economies, creating masses of jobs on and off campus, and generating revenue through any number of related small businesses. Their impact reaches far beyond students and lecturers – they are wealth-creators for communities. It is a brave MP who decrees that any institution should be allowed to go to the wall.

For example, Sheffield Hallam University is by common consent a well-run university. On a turnover of £215m in 2009, Sheffield Hallam made a surplus of just £1.9m. The report estimates that the withdrawal of state funding for non-priority subjects will cost the institution around £47m a year. Assuming constant costs, if it fails to recover at least 96% of this lost income, presumably through higher fees, it will be forced into deficit and will need to consider reducing provision.

Such a radical policy shift will see entire subject areas, mainly arts and the humanities and social sciences, starved of public funds. We will enter an era of survival of the fittest. An era in which many arts-based and teaching-focused institutions, which rely on public funding far more than the larger research-intensive universities, will face an uncertain future.

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