Page last updated at 10:05 GMT, Saturday, 13 February 2010

Universities warn of education funding cuts crisis

University graduates
Universities have warned thousands of jobs are at risk

Thousands of job losses could push higher education into crisis, the university lecturers' union has warned.

Last week the government announced it wanted to cut higher education funding in England by £449m.

Universities UK, which represents university leaders, wants assurances there will not be more cuts next year.

Business Secretary Lord Mandelson said he could not give specific undertakings but said the government would not risk Labour's record on higher education.

'Crisis situation'

The University and College Union (UCU) said 6,000 university jobs were already at risk across the UK and 9,000 more could go in England alone.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "People who are paying for their education are finding now that there are less tutors available to make sure that they get the education they need and deserve.

"More pressure on the system, larger class sizes, less choice available for students now and in the future - we're in a real crisis situation.

"It's not something that's happening in the future, it's now and it will get worse."

But Ruth Lea, an economic advisor at the Arbuthnot Banking Group, said there was no alternative to cutting expenditure and universities would have to adapt.

She said the institutions would have to think about raising their annual tuition fees.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents 20 leading universities, told the BBC she agreed that this was something which needed serious consideration.

We are in an international market - we have to compete with universities in the US, Australia, China and Brazil
Wendy Piatt

"We think graduates really do benefit significantly from going to university and £3,000 is a very good deal.

"It is much lower than the fees that are charged in the US and in Australia and in other countries, so absolutely we would like to look at the issue of being able to charge a little bit more than that," she said.

Dr Piatt said that the cuts were a serious matter and if the plans went any further, they would have a "really deep impact" on the ability of the universities to compete on an international scale.

She said the universities wanted to attract "pioneering, leading academics" to inspire graduates who would lead the UK out of the recession.

"We are in an international market - we have to compete with universities in the US, Australia, China and Brazil.

"Instead of cutting budgets in those countries, Sarkozy in France, Obama in the US are actually ploughing more money into those leading institutions.

Ms Lee said the reason why many people entered higher education had to be re-examined as part of the cost-cutting attempt.

"Do we really need to send 42% to university? There must be alternatives that in many ways would be more suitable for some school leavers," she said.

'Colossal investment'

Lord Mandelson said the universities were exaggerating the problem and they had nothing to fear from Labour.

He said: "Never have you seen a decade in which more has been spent, more has been invested, there are more student places offered, there are more teachers and lecturers recruited than in the last 10 years in this country.

"We are not prepared now to reverse that record and undo the colossal investment that we have made and the excellence in our universities that we have built up."

The Conservatives want to increase student numbers but agree higher education is not immune to cuts.

Universities fear there could be more cuts to come whoever is in power after the general election.

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