Of the supposedly punitive “cuts” announced yesterday by George Osborne, al fresco in the Treasury courtyard, few will provoke more howls of outrage than the alleged reduction in the higher education budget. Expect a procession of vice-chancellors through television studios, warning that Britain is being plunged into intellectual darkness and that our competitiveness will be destroyed.I would argue that there are many areas where massive cuts would be "to the benefit, not the disadvantage, of society", but he's certainly right about this one.
All of which is fantasy, because these “cuts” actually disguise an increase in expenditure that betrays a Liberal-Conservative administration deeply in denial in the face of economic meltdown. The headlines shriek about a £200m cut in higher education spending and a reduction of 10,000 university places. But the reality is a £70m increase in spending and the creation of 10,000 new and completely superfluous student places.
It is the oldest trick in the book. Routinely, government “cuts” turn out not to be a reduction in existing expenditure but a decrease in projected future additional spending. So it is in this instance. Two months ago the Labour government allocated an extra £270m to universities for 2010-2011, with the intention of creating 20,000 new university places. All that has now happened is that Dave and Co have reduced that handout by £200m and committed themselves to just 10,000 new university places (8,000 full-time undergraduates and 2,000 part-time) next academic year.
Only a politician or other interested party could represent £70m of additional spending and 10,000 new students as a “cut”. What makes this smoke-and-mirrors exercise especially reprehensible is that we already have far too many students – and universities. Higher education is the one area where massive cuts could be made to the benefit, not the disadvantage, of society. The Labour dogma (now adhered to by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) is that ever increasing numbers of young people should go to university, in the name of equality, “widening access” and, of course, “fairness”.
Warner highlights the appalling drop-out rate, and concludes with characteristic common sense:
With a 22 per cent wastage rate, we should be reducing university provision by around that figure, thereby making enormous savings in taxpayers’ money. Beyond that, we should be making even larger savings by closing down sink universities whose under-performance is notorious. How, exactly, will our international competitiveness be impaired by denying young Darren two years of getting paralytic in the students’ union bar before he drops out? There is an unconscionable amount of po-faced nonsense talked about expanded access to university: it is predicated not on academic but on political and social engineering imperatives.I thoroughly recommend the whole article.
The Chancellor is pretending to have taken a scalpel to higher education when in fact he has continued complicit in its relentless and damaging expansion. With a budget deficit of £156bn, over 11 per cent of GDP, and a National Debt so astronomic that this year’s interest on it will amount to almost £43bn, the pretence that net cuts of £5.7bn represent a robust response to financial crisis is ludicrous. The markets will surely conclude that Dave and Nick are having a laugh. If the rest of this token package is as illusory as the higher education “cuts”, heaven help Britain.