The future of funding – what happens now?

Although the Government has endorsed “the main thrust” of the Browne Review, and the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) will set out nearly 80 percent cuts to higher education, the plans have yet to become government policy.

Some of the proposals, like raising interest rates on student loans, may go through in a matter of weeks, as the government may be able to use statutory instruments to force the changes through. Other, more drastic changes will take longer, as they require the creation of primary legislation, which has to go through Parliament before becoming law. The fees hike is one such matter that will require legislation, and any changes are unlikely to take effect until the 2012 intake of new students.

The CSR, on the other hand, is a “firm and fixed” three-year plan for departmental spending limits, and once it reports, will become policy without having to go through Parliament. Therefore, 80 percent cuts to government funding for university teaching are almost certain to become reality – and sooner rather than later, as the CSR will take effect from the next financial year (2011-2012).

The varied timings of implementing policies means that the next year will be hectic indeed, with Government passing one change after the next, and the NUS and UCU (representing students and lecturers, respectively) responding to each one.

It is likely the coalition will have to water down some of the proposals to placate some Liberal Democrat MPs, who will be uneasy about breaking their pre-election pledge to vote against any increase in fees. However, with 80 percent cuts looming, Lib Dems might be forced to accept higher fees rather than allow significant underfunding of the higher education sector.

Regardless of what happens in the next few months, it is likely that the Browne Review will pass in some form, and the marketisation of higher education in the UK will become a reality. If this does occur, then the UK’s universities will look more and more like those in the United States.

Although American universities regularly top world rankings and are often better-funded than those in other countries, America also has some of the worst rates of socioeconomic inequality in the Western world, and nowhere is this more evident than in students’ choice of university. Poorer students will often elect to go to a much cheaper and more easily accessible community college rather than a prestigious university, and the spectre of hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt is enough to deter even middle-class students.

It will remain to be seen whether opening up the UK’s higher education sector to market forces will result in the same levels of debt and inequality as in the US, or whether the safeguards proposed in the Browne Review would be sufficient to protect those on lower incomes and not discourage them from attending top universities.


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