Under threat: Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor is terrified by Labour’s manifesto
Labour’s toxic combo of cuts in fees and government spending leaves Cambridge threatened
Growing more ominous by the day, the spectre of spending cuts after the general election has led the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, to prepare for the worst.
Apparently adding salt to the wound, Labour have pledged to reduce students’ annual tuition fees to £6,000.
If this happens, with the university already at breaking point, a stark choice will have to be made on the university’s future.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Sir Leszek said: “I cannot afford to put any more in from the university and the colleges than we are already to subsidise undergraduate education.”
Cambridge already subsidises 45 to 50 per cent of the total £16,100 annual cost of undergraduate degrees.
Consequently, if the university decides one-to-one supervisions and other expensive resources are too precious to be ditched, more applicants will have to be turned away.
Labour’s Daniel Zecihner applauded the Vice-Chancellor as “absolutely right”, telling Cambridge News that Labour is “the only party that has identified where future funding will come from.”
Yet, whatever the veracity of Labour’s promise to fund this by reducing tax relief on pensions, Sir Leszek fears the move would make universities more dependent on the government.
In his eyes, that’s not a good thing – he is under growing pressure to go private and unshackle the university from the uncertainty of public funding.
Indeed, however many promises Labour may make, it is clear that the next Chancellor faces pressure to “fill the pothole in the road” rather than allowing “an extra student at Cambridge”.
“Those are not easy [questions] that they will have to respond to. I clearly am biased, and would opt for the latter any day.”
Despite the fact that Oxford and Cambridge may have the necessary status to go private, Sir Leszek says this would be a “very big leap”.
And, it is one he desperately does not want to take.
“I have no desire to go private. You have to ask yourself, what benefits would you have?”
“Well, there are financial issues that we would have to deal with but nobody is threatening our autonomy and our capacity to ensure that we deliver an education.”
Julian Huppert, the current Lib Dem MP, is well-known for his plans to scrap fees altogether.
But, in a display of pragmatism clearly designed to snub Labour, he accepted that cutting fees may in fact be dangerously counter-productive.
“If there is only a limited amount of money available, then rather than reduce fees a bit, which only helps high earners, I would much rather provide bursaries for students, many of whom tell me that the problem they face is paying for rent, food and travel when they are students, not how much they will have to pay back when they are in their forties.
“I’m really pleased that the system of bursaries and scholarships we set up has meant that more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are now going to university than under Labour.”
In this, Dr Huppert finds himself in agreement with the now notorious Tory candidate, Chamali Fernando, who believes a Labour government will endanger Cambridge’s global position.
Naturally, she followed this comment by laying into the Lib Dem’s proposed graduate tax.
Meanwhile, Tory MP Greg Clark, the former universities and science minister, made a plea for the NatSci vote: “It is a Conservative chancellor that ring-fenced the science budget during this parliament, when very difficult decisions had to be made across government.
“We view science and research – including the social sciences and humanities – as an investment in the future of the UK.”
Sadly, no goodies are on offer for humanities students, who might do well to remember that higher tuition fees further subsidise their NatSci friends.
But, in all seriousness, Sir Leszek delivers a frightening finding: lower tuition fees are likely to be counter-productive.
Unless greater inequality is your thing, his point is clear.