For Staff

Fighting for the future of UK universities - May 2010

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When you're involved in a fight for the future of UK universities in the middle of a global recession, every piece of new evidence helps.

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano - discharging a thousand tonnes of ash per minute into the atmosphere - provided one of the more eye-catching arguments for higher education funding.

University of Leeds research was at the heart of the government's response, in modelling the results of ash samples collected by a Met Office and Natural Environment Research Council-funded plane (itself a survivor of economies). Thanks to Stephen Mobbs and colleagues at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, (based in Leeds) the 'safe' concentration of volcanic ash - at 2 x 10-3grams per cubic metre - could be tracked, and airspace closures minimised.

Our understanding was further enhanced by volcanologist Marjorie Wilson and contributions from Stephen Wright on aviation safety, and Icelandic expert Alaric Hall on the country's history and how to pronounce the name of the volcano! With profits of £1.5bn, 100,000 flights and 10 million passenger journeys at stake, the importance, relevance and impact of publicly-funded research is beyond question.

The General Election gave University experts multiple opportunities to shed light on the twists and turns of the political processes. Our colleagues were on the airwaves across the UK and the world, from Judith Stamper's excellent deconstruction of the TV debates on Radio 5 Live to Bobby Sayyid's expertise on Muslim voting intentions. The critically-acclaimed play Counted about people's disengagement with democracy, by Professors Bottoms and Coleman opened at County Hall, just across the river from the Houses of Parliament.*

While the election result was perhaps something of a surprise, the outcome for the public sector and higher education was as
predicted. Public expenditure cuts will have to offset 80 per cent of the black hole in the economy, with tax increases accounting for the remainder. The Reporter's publication date coincides with the first cuts of £6bn this financial year (to 31 March 2011), heralded by Chancellor George Osborne** with a chilling observation that there's this much waste across the public sector. The quality of our services, he added, will be enhanced through reform and further belt-tightening measures in the 22 June Budget. At the time of writing, the Higher Education Funding Council for England's share of the £6bn is rumoured to be as much as £400m - we will find out all too soon if this is correct.

So what does this mean for us? The good news is that we have made substantial progress towards ensuring that all our schools and services have academic and strategic plans in place to remain viable and sustainable, while protecting the student experience as much as possible, in the face of a likely 20 per cent overall reduction in core funding.

The annual planning round was a professional and thorough response to very difficult circumstances. Together with the chill on recruitment, the voluntary leavers' scheme, careful controls on nonstaff expenditure and providing there is effective implementation, we believe we may already be as far as three-quarters of the way towards achieving the savings we need. The services have taken out £10m of costs between them, and although further organisational work is required, they can now proceed with a measure of confidence in their budgets.

Similarly, the vast majority of schools have clarity about their future and all of this has been achieved with a very careful eye to maintaining a high-quality student experience. Having engaged staff in a positive and collaborative way in drawing up academic and financially sustainable plans, two schools have recently come through reviews with very positive outcomes and without the need for formal restructuring. Senate will receive reports on another six which are working through the review processes, and a further half-dozen that may join them. Reviews have steered schools like civil engineering, design, lifelong learning, performance and cultural industries, food science and SPEME towards a successful future; to which we can now add education, computing and maths.

Planning is a challenge with so much uncertainty. The contribution made by undergraduates to their education - an important income stream for many schools - is being reviewed by Lord Browne, who is due to report in the autumn. The Russell Group's contribution to that debate is in two parts; why investment in our universities is critical to our future, and where that investment might come from***.

The recommendations include raising the contribution made by students - but, as now - only once they have graduated, so higher
education should remain 'free at the point of delivery'. The other important principle we must preserve is that all who have the ability to benefit from a university education can do so, regardless of their background or funds. And of course we are determined that any increase in student contributions will not be offset by government cuts.

The contribution made by universities to our cultural wellbeing is difficult to measure, but there is hard evidence of their net
contribution to the economy; for every pound invested, the economy benefits by three pounds. The funding debate will be fierce, and on it depends the future of a higher education system which I hope will remain the envy of the world.

* See In the News for more details.
*** Staying on top; The challenge of sustaining world class higher education in the UK, published by The Russell Group.