For Staff

The future of higher education after draconian cuts - October 2010

image of VC

Colleagues are rightly, deeply concerned about the future, and what kind of higher education system will emerge from such draconian cuts in state funding.

I share their distress, and well understand the unhappiness and even anger they have precipitated. A colleague has written in moving terms to seek assurances about our University; with her permission, here are her words.

"It is hard not to be alarmed when reading responses from the higher education sector to the Comprehensive Spending Review. I have to admit, I scare easily and I suppose that is why I find myself writing to you.

"I would call myself a middle-of-the-roader when it comes to politics and to University politics and I am not writing to you because I fear for my job and I want any kind of guarantee from you. I do fear for my job but I know that you are unable to provide wholesale guarantees of employment to staff.

"What I want most from you (and in lieu of any guarantees) is an assertion that although frightening things are happening, you will bring the University through this, and that you and your senior team have a plan, and you are confident this plan will work.

"I know that giving such an assertion at this stage could be difficult because we do not know all of the details about where and how the cuts will fall, but I thought, nevertheless, that it might be useful for you to hear how a mother of one, working at a low-ish grade in a job that she likes, in a University that she likes, feels about things."

My reply was as follows: "I completely understand your concerns and thank you for taking the plunge in writing to me. It is critically important that I know how our staff are feeling.

"The good news is that I am confident that I can reassure you. What has happened in the last 24 hours is that much of the information of which I (and the senior team) have been aware of for some time is suddenly in the public domain and it is indeed scary at first look. However, we are more than ready for it.

"Without doubt we will get through this - the work we did last year in the economies exercise means that we are starting from a strong financial base and with a clear view of what is central to our future. Although I need to be slightly guarded until I have got all the detail, I am not anticipating having to ask for yet more savings (beyond the original £35m target). That is good news for jobs.

"It is however important that we acknowledge that our future is now dependent on understanding that a lot of government money has gone, but that the Browne review gives us the opportunity to cope with that via increased student fees. As far as I can see, there is no other option realistically open to us. I was at a meeting today where the Minister for higher education made that abundantly clear. It is really important to remember that Browne's proposals ensure that no one has to pay for their university education up front, or in later life, unless they are earning more than £21,000 a year.

"We should be confident that we can make that work - we are an excellent and popular university. We must focus on improving our performance so that we remain competitive and a place where students will continue to wish to study."

I have detailed in these pages the lobbying campaign to try to convince successive governments not to visit draconian cuts on higher education. It goes back to April 2009, when senior officials at the-then government department for higher education (DIUS) warned a roomful of incredulous Vice-Chancellors that we should start preparing for cuts in government funding of at least 20 per cent. We were left in no doubt that this was very serious.

As a taster of what was to come, higher education was cut £600m, then another £180m (both recurrent) last year, followed by Lord Mandelson's Christmas Eve announcement - going back on a specific promise - of another £135m. So, as Russell Group chair, I went very public, with a powerful article splashed in the Guardian* about government threats to bring a world class education system going back hundreds of years to its knees, and how projected cuts of even greater magnitude might precipitate meltdown in the sector.

We've seen a huge, co-ordinated effort all year, involving all the university 'mission groups' and external bodies, including business, funders and charities, and hundreds of hours of lobbying in Whitehall, Number 10, the Treasury and the department, rising to fever pitch in recent weeks. (I know every single train manager on the East Coast rail line!). There couldn't have been more effort; but I fear the formation of the Con-Dem government with their perceived mandate to push ahead with austerity measures made the outcome inevitable, although it is nonetheless truly shocking.

The news is not all bad. We have managed to secure a large degree of protection for all research funding (not just the 'STEM' subjects) and, given that student fees will increase, the proposed repayment arrangements are the most supportive of any graduate contribution scheme in the world.

I go into all these issues, and my confidence in the future of arts and humanities at Leeds in particular, in more detail in my webcast and speech to Senate, both available to you all. Let me be clear - we have an excellent university and I am confident that we can ride this storm.