Govt ‘can’t guarantee survival of university departments’

By Ian Dunt

The government cannot guarantee the survival of all university departments in the wake of the spending review, the universities minister has admitted.

David Willetts and business secretary Vince Cable admitted that university departments could be forced to close while appearing in front of the Commons business committee.

Mr Willetts admitted that there was a dearth of funding between 2011 and 2012 because the increase in tuition fees envisaged by the Browne review would not benefit universities until 2012 at the earliest – a full year after spending cuts start to bite.

“We are expecting some savings in 2011/12,” Mr Willetts admitted.

“It’s not possible to offer a blanket guarantee that all departments will carry on.”

Labour committee chairman Adrian Bailey replied: “It does seem a huge risk.”
Mr Willetts was also unable to say how severely the teaching grant would be cut – a key factor universities take into account when planning their budget.

The debate over higher education funding continues to provide a key test for the cohesion of the coalition government, with Lib Dems having signed pledges before the election that they would never back an increase in fees.

That pledge has now come back to haunt them, with Mr Cable telling the Commons a fortnight ago that he supports the “main thrust” of the Browne review.

Both he and party leader Nick Clegg have suggested fees may be capped at £7,000 a year, rather than follow the Lord Browne’s suggestion that they be allowed to rise without limit.

That suggestion is unlikely to stem the vitriolic anger directed at the business secretary and the deputy prime minister for their U-turn on the matter.

The decision to back the review is a potentially catastrophic one for the Lib Dems, who are already suffering poor polling as a result of their decision to enter government with the Conservatives.

Many of the party’s MPs are reliant on student support in major metropolitan areas, a key voting demographic which is likely defect to Labour if the party cooperates in the implementation of the Browne review.