Business secretary Lord Mandelson has declared that the government is to cut university funding in England by a total of £398m for 2010/11. The reduced allocations will witness £84m taken from the funding budget for buildings and equipment, and £51m for teaching.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that even deeper cuts of 12.3% over 2011/12 are needed for ministers to achieve their target of halving national debt by 2013. This would mean an extra £1.6bn of cuts to the science and universities budget.

In a letter addressed to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), Lord Mandelson asked for universities to protect their access and quality, despite the funding cuts. He also stated that last year’s u-turn on extra student numbers will not reoccur in 2010/11, as it was merely “responding to the particular needs of the time.”

In the aftermath of Mandelson’s announcement, many universities have warned Gordon Brown that the proposed cuts will bring higher education in England to its knees. Writing in The Guardian last week, The Russell Group, which represents twenty leading universities including Oxford, Cambridge and Warwick, claimed that the gold standard education currently offered will be reduced to “bronze or worse”.

The Russell Group has called for Mandelson to reconsider the proposed cuts, and for assurance that no further cuts will be imposed. The group anticipates that Labour’s cuts will result in the closure of hundreds of courses, the loss of academic staff, and larger class sizes.

“It has taken more than 800 years to create one of the world’s greatest education systems and it looks like it will take just six months to bring it to its knees. Such huge cuts in university budgets would have a devastating effect not only on students and staff, but also on Britain’s international competitiveness, economy, and ability to recover from the recession,” the group said.

The statement continued: “If politicians don’t act now, they will be faced with a meltdown in a sector that is vital to our national prosperity.”

Other reports have predicted that up to thirty universities would not survive should even minimal funding cuts be introduced. Universities across the country have already identified thousands of jobs at risk in their institutions.

General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), Sally Hunt, said: “Unless these savage cuts are reversed, we face the very real prospect of many universities being forced to close, over 14,000 staff losing their jobs, and some of the biggest class sizes in the world”.

In order to ease the pressure of the funding crisis for universities, the government has suggested introducing more two-year Fast-Track degrees. These Foundation and Fast-Track degree courses, which tend to appeal to those searching for more vocational qualifications, are designed to attract a broader range of students.

Higher education minister, David Lammy, said: “Fast-track, part-time, and two year degrees do not represent a reduction in quality in the higher education offer, but an increase in choice for the would-be learner. In the current economic climate, it is not a question of whether efficiencies should be made, but where efficiencies should be found.”

Lammy added that “the suggestion that the savings we have asked from universities will bring higher education ‘to its knees’ is as surprising as it is misleading.”

Shadow university and skills secretary, David Willetts, has promised that a Conservative government would offer an additional 10,000 university places. “This year, as a combination of a demographic bulge and the recession, more people want to go to university. Our view is that higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by the ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so,” he said.

Elsewhere in Europe, the future of higher education looks distinctly more optimistic. Nicholas Sarkozy has recently announced an 11bn Euro investment in higher education in France, stating he “wants the best universities in the world”. Germany has also allegedly pumped 18bn Euros into promoting “world class research alongside university education.”

The University of Buckingham – the UK’s only privately funded university – is the only British institution to welcome the cuts, stating: “It was by such cuts that the US created its Ivy League, which is the world’s best university system.” This does not bode well for small institutions such as Sussex.

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