Mandelson: universities not singled out for cuts but must focus on strengths
11 February 2010
Lord Mandelson today said that the higher education sector was not being "singled out for financial constraint".
In a speech at the first Lord Dearing Memorial Conference at Nottingham University he said: "Much of the rest of the public sector will receive similar constraints in the course of this year or soon after. The appearance that universities are in the frontline of public spending cuts is an illusion created by that need to plan ahead.
"I have always said that higher education would have to bear its share of public spending cuts, but not more,” added the business secretary who urged universities to focus on their strongest areas of research and teaching.
His call for greater diversity in the sector was welcomed by Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, who said world-class universities were essential to recovery form the present recession.
Lord Mandelson admitted that there would be more "disappointed" students this year. "The right response to that very real disappointment, as tempting as it might seem, cannot be to guarantee every applicant a full-time university place. It makes no sense either in terms of the cost to the public purse, or the provision of quality teaching, which remains critical to the credibility of higher education."
He added: "A large-scale, untargeted further expansion of full-time, three-year degrees without any real attention to what these additional students are studying, or how well it equips them for life at work, also makes no sense at a time when we need to be focusing more closely on strategic skills and alternatives to full-time study."
Lord Mandelson admitted cuts would mean universities will be forced to scale back in some areas, and focus on their strengths. "I do not believe that the net effect of public funding constraint has to be a fall in quality, even if it requires a refocusing of resources. Universities are free to find the savings the Government requires where they wish, and they can, if they choose, focus funding in their strongest areas of teaching and research.
"This is a process that needs to happen anyway and it must inevitably mean institutions removing resources from areas where they are weaker to concentrate them where they are achieving teaching and research excellence. The reality is that we cannot afford a system in which every institution tries to do everything." he added.
Responding to the speech, Dr Piatt said: “We greatly welcome Lord Mandelson’s recognition of the importance of universities to the economy and recovery from the present recession. His call for greater diversity within the sector – particularly that not every university should be trying to do the same thing and that they should ‘play to their institutional strengths’ – is one which the Russell Group endorses.
“He is right to say that maintaining the quality of UK degrees must take precedence over simple expansion of the number of places in higher education.
"Lord Mandelson has said that higher education has ‘not been singled out for financial constraint’ and we hope that our universities will not have to sustain further cuts. They are essential to the government’s ambitions for world-leading innovation and a highly educated and socially mobile workforce,” she added.