Page last updated at 18:24 GMT, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

University fears over Tory plans

Universities say opportunities for students will narrow without extra funding

A university leader is warning that Conservative plans to restrict public spending would mean cutting the number of places available to students.

Les Ebdon, chair of the Million Plus think tank, says "alarm bells" have been sounded by comments by Conservative leader, David Cameron.

Mr Cameron called for tax cuts to be funded by public spending restraints.

A spokesman for the Conservatives said the plans represented a real terms increase for universities and not cuts.

Mr Cameron, in a speech on Monday, said "the time to start being prudent is now" with a limit of a 1% increase in real terms for many areas of public spending in 2009-10.

He said there was a need for "a culture of thrift at the heart of government" to strengthen the economy.

Financial pressure

The Opposition leader said there would be exceptions, with a commitment to maintain "the government's spending plans for the NHS, schools, defence and International development".

But Professor Ebdon, vice chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, says that universities are worried by the lack of a similar promise to protect higher education funding.

He says that universities already face costs that are increasing well above inflation and that limiting funding will mean either cutting places or lowering the amount spent per student.

A rising number of 18-year-olds, increases in staff costs and the goal of widening participation all mean that universities require rises in funding, says Professor Ebdon.

Such a limit on funding for higher education risked a narrowing of opportunity, warns Professor Ebdon, who also says that the Conservatives needed to clarify their plans for university.

A spokesman for the Conservatives said: "We are committed to a real terms increase in public spending, including on universities. Our detailed plans will be set out in due course."

Professor Ebdon, chair of the Million Plus group, which grew out of an organisation for new universities, also argues that universities should be harnessed to play a bigger role in tackling the current economic downturn.

"The unemployed should be given chances to re-train," he says, with universities able to provide the courses needed to improve the skills of the workforce.

He also called on the government to suspend its decision to stop funding for people wanting to study for a second undergraduate degree.

Universities already face questions about their financial stability.

According to a higher education pay negotiating body, the sector is predicting a 4% "real terms" deficit - partly due to a 2bn shortfall in research funding and high staff costs.

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