Just how hard will schools be hit by higher education's budget crisis?

5th February 2010 at 00:00
Fears are growing that almost #163;1 billion in university cuts could scupper the chances of disadvantaged pupils and the supply of new teachers in shortage subjects. Richard Vaughan reports

If schools were fearing budget constrictions in the coming years, teachers should cast an eye towards their cousins in the higher education sector, because it has been a miserable winter for universities.

In December, business and universities secretary Peter Mandelson did his best to ensure lecturers, deans and chancellors across the country had a very unpleasant Christmas.

Just before Christmas Day, Lord Mandelson announced in a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) that university budgets would be slashed by a further #163;135 million over the next three years.

He said in his letter that the additional savings had to be made in order to pay for the "higher than expected costs" of funding grants and loans for the record number of students going to university during the recession.

The business secretary's announcement followed plans to make more than #163;600 million worth of cuts as spelt out in November's pre-Budget report. This was added to an already sizeable #163;180 million of "efficiency savings" that then universities secretary John Denham demanded should be found over the next 18 months.

In all, it is expected that overall cuts to universities will total around #163;950 million between 2010 and 2013.

In light of this, it would seem tempting to let out a sigh of relief; to think, "At least it's them and not us." But the cuts to university funding will undoubtedly have an impact all the way down the system.

John Morgan, president of the Association of School and College Leaders and headteacher at Conyers School in Stockton-on-Tees, said schools should be wary when any education budget is slashed.

"A cut to any part of education is a cut to the whole system," he said. "Just in the same way a cut to schools will be felt by the higher education sector. It is all part of the cradle-to-grave approach to education - there is a great danger if any part is damaged."

Particular concerns have been raised following the release of an HEFCE report last week which showed that pupils from the poorest part of the country were 50 per cent more likely to go to university than in the mid-1990s.

It was a welcome piece of news, but with almost #163;1 billion worth of cuts to the higher education sector to come, some fear that achievements such as these could be at risk.

Earlier this week, Professor Steve Smith, president of executive heads group Universities UK, said the cuts would result in a "severe" shortfall in university places.

For Mr Morgan, it is this same good work that has gone into helping teenagers to get into university that will be among the first to go once the axe is swung.

"If the universities have to save money, there is a worry they will have to save it on places, and that makes getting into university more difficult," he said.

"Universities have done a lot of good work in coming out to schools, while initiatives like the Aim Higher programme have tried to get those students who may not have previously aspired to go to university. It's that sort of activity that will be hit - it's the fringe rather than the core that feels the cuts first. So if that type of work is reduced, that will affect schools."

The Government has already made clear that the extra funding made available last year for 10,000 additional university places is a "one off", meaning from next year there will be even greater numbers of applicants but no more places to accommodate them.

It is estimated that there will be a 30 per cent increase in the number of applicants hoping to go to university this year and, according to Mr Morgan, the competition for places could result in pupils from poorer backgrounds losing out.

"There could be a danger that universities won't look at a student's individual background but instead stick to how well they have achieved in their A-level grades," he said.

"Universities each year get better, using their elements of identifying potential as well as looking at attainment. It will be a particular shame if that were to stop, especially when we are just starting to see the long-term impact in narrowing the gap of youngsters going on to study at university.

"It would be a real shame if any strategies that are having an effect right across the country were cut. You have to get to pupils before they reach 14 or 15 if you are to have an impact on their aspirations. Universities are doing fantastic work - at primary as well as secondary level - to raise the aspirations of children and convince them that they can go to university. It is very important fringe activity that they do.

"It is very unlikely the schools sector will be able to fund that rather welcome support they had from universities."

But while the immediate effect of the funding cuts will be felt by poorer pupils hoping to get into university, schools may also feel an added impact five and even 10 years down the line.

The unwelcome news was compounded last month when universities minister David Lammy said the cuts felt in higher education will "last for years".

The announcement has prompted fears among unions that universities will begin cutting back on less popular courses as cost-saving measures, which could hit the supply of teachers, especially in shortage subjects.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said universities should avoid opting for the popular vote.

"The cuts to spending will mean the universities will have to look cautiously at the provision of courses," said Dr Bousted, a former head of Kingston University's school of education. "The fear is that the universities may have to introduce a degree of populism when they come to deciding which should and should not be cut.

"You may have highly popular courses, but they may not be in the best interest of the country. Subjects that are not hugely popular already struggle to get candidates. This might have an effect on the number of teachers coming out."

John Bangs, head of education at teaching union the NUT, echoed the ATL's words, saying university departments that are already struggling will be the first to be squeezed. But he said teachers currently working in schools will also be affected, particularly in terms of their continuing professional development (CPD).

"The first swathe of cuts will go through the geography, art or music departments, then that will have a direct effect on the supply of teachers doing PGCE," he said. "It will be felt especially by shortage subjects like music.

"Furthermore, cuts always inhibit innovation. We have the government-mandated masters in teaching and learning (MTL), but there is now a potential threat to many universities that want to get out there and do innovative things.

"Many teachers will find that many of those points that come through innovation and that go towards masters credits will also be under threat. This will mean it hits their own masters, so it will hit schools in terms of CPD as well as the supply of teachers."

However, the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET) believes it is too early to say how great an impact the cuts will have on the supply of teachers.

James Noble-Rogers, UCET executive director, said that for the time being there was little reason for "scaremongering".

"Universities will have to look beyond their core work and try to protect the good work that has already taken place, such as increasing the number of students from poorer backgrounds attending university," he said.

"It really is too early to say what impact (the funding cuts) will have, but the closure of departments in some universities could happen. It is certainly something that people will need to keep an eye on, although there is no need to raise too much panic - especially when recruitment is currently so buoyant."

Recruitment may be "buoyant" at the moment, but the job market will not remain the same. The announcement this week that the country is dragging its way out of recession was coupled with better-than-expected employment figures.

What is happening in higher education may not be replicated as severely in schools. But with budgets being squeezed, and with a potential Conservative government refusing to protect school spending, teachers could find themselves on a similarly precarious footing.


Universities, much like every other public sector, had been enjoying the benefits of record levels of funding under this Labour Government. But now the party is over.

Lord Mandelson's revelation in his letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England that an additional #163;135 million would be lopped off the universities' budget was just the latest of many sobering cutbacks awaiting the sector.

In all, universities and opposition MPs estimate that about #163;950 million will be slashed from university budgets between 2010 and 2013, leading to Russell Group chairman Michael Arthur claiming the cuts could lead to the closure of 30 universities.

In response to concerns, Lord Mandelson has said universities' income for research and teaching will continue to grow, that higher education has never experienced such sustained levels of funding and that it would not be able to avoid the impending funding constraints that the country faces.

The Russell Group is particularly concerned about the timing of the cuts. After the US, Britain has the best higher education system in the world, but at a time when England is cutting back spending, France and Germany are investing #163;9.6 billion and #163;15.7 billion respectively, while President Obama has put more than #163;13 billion into science research.

England's universities have been told that the funding cuts could "last for years", and there are fears that more cuts could be on the way. Such funding squeezes will inevitably be felt by schools.

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