Party Time Is over as Universities Face Axe; ECONOMIC ANALYSIS

Article excerpt

Byline: Russell Lynch

TOOTH-AND-CLAW competition between universities may have many academics spluttering into their common-room tea, but the reforms in prospect are merely a harbinger of how Britain will be reshaped by tomorrow's Comprehensive Spending Review.

Former BP boss Lord Browne's universities review promises to pitch hallowed institutions against the lowliest former polytechnics in the struggle for scant public funds and create a new generation of student "consumers" shopping around for the best courses.

Casualties -- in terms of courses and even institutions themselves -- are likely. According to Universities UK, institutions are already set to lose around [pounds sterling]1 billion in research funding over the next four years. The main worry now is how much of the [pounds sterling]4.7 billion in public teaching grants will be slashed.

The sums at risk are a small fraction of the [pounds sterling]83 billion in cuts to be unveiled, but the results will reverberate for years to come, and echo the questions being asked and decisions being made across all our public services: what are we no longer prepared to pay for? In the case of Browne's review, the answer appears to be arts and humanities, neither of which merit a single mention in the 64-page document and are clearly considered an unaffordable luxury. Instead the emphasis is on priorities such as science and technology, although you might get funding for languages if they are "strategically important". Under the new vision, the market will determine higher education (HE) provision, with new entrants emerging to offer priority courses and compete for limited financing with existing institutions.

Coming from a former BP supremo who led the oil giant on a string of takeovers, it is unsurprising to read a report shot through with business language: a new HE council, for example, will "explore options such as mergers and takeovers" if institutions are failing to preserve them as a "going concern".

Meanwhile, would-be undergraduates expected to pay [pounds sterling]7000 a year in fees for a degree on average will reach for their calculators and work out what and where they need to study to make their substantial investment pay off. Talented students from poorer and traditionally debt-averse backgrounds may be put off a degree altogether, while in the "squeezed Middle" the Bank of Mum and Dad is likely to be taking more than a passing interest in degree choice.

The notion of studying a subject because you "like" it now looks awfully quaint, or at least the preserve of the wealthy: the average graduate earns around [pounds sterling]100,000 more over their lifetime than somebody who quit education after A-levels, but the results vary wildly on what you study. …