Britain’s higher education system is recognised across the globe as a gold standard, second only to the US. Eighteen of our universities rank in the world’s top 100. Comprising just 1% of the global population, Britain produces 7.9% of the world’s academic research publications.

However, our prized universities are not immune from the current recession. Last month, business secretary Lord Mandelson announced higher education funding cuts of £398m for 2010/11. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that even deeper cuts are required for 2011/12 if ministers are to achieve their target of halving national debt by 2013.

When Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was asked if there was still money to spend on Labour priorities despite the public-sector deficit, he replied, “Of course there is”. Yet, while money has been safeguarded to protect the health service, police, and primary and secondary schools, higher education has suffered a severe blow. This is surprising, considering the gross annual financial output of British universities exceeds that of the lucrative pharmaceutical and aerospace industries.

While Mandelson insists that universities must continue to protect standards and access to higher education, Universities UK has warned that a reduction in the public spending of money per student would seriously threaten the ability of universities in England to offer a high quality education.

The Russell Group, which represents twenty leading universities in the UK, has warned the government that the gold standard education currently offered in England will be reduced to “bronze or worse” if Labour’s proposed cuts are enforced.

Michael Farthing, vice chancellor of Sussex, has cited the reductions in government funding responsible for the proposed cuts at our university. However, many academics, staff, and students are dismayed that while we witness the most savage set of redundancies in the history of the university, members of the senior management have received pay increases, the financial books have remained inaccessible, and costly building projects are in motion to revamp the university’s infrastructure.

Local MPs have voiced their concerns about the proposed cuts at Sussex. David Lepper, Labour MP for Brighton Pavilion, told The Badger: “My particular concerns are about the loss of jobs proposed, the impact of the proposals on teaching and the continuing work of particular departments, the possible imbalance between proposed capital and other expenditure, and the future of important campus-based services such as childcare and health.”

Nancy Platts, Labour parliamentary candidate for Brighton Pavilion, said: “I am greatly concerned by plans to cut funding to universities and the way in which these are being applied to departments and the potential loss of jobs at Sussex University. At such a difficult time we need total transparency and effective consultation with staff and students before any decisions are made about how cuts are applied.”

She added: “I see any proposals to cut childcare for students as a retrograde step that will prevent some parents from continuing their education.”

Sussex alumni have also voiced their concerns to The Badger…

Dear Sir / Madam,

The news from Sussex University is distressing. The projected staff cuts in the disciplines which are central to the purpose of a university – Life Sciences, Informatics, English, History, Art History, Philosophy, Engineering, Continuing Education – while there is to be growth in the areas that are more vocational and banausic, and therefore suitable curricula for further education colleges or polytechnics (business, management, and media studies), is a complete reversal of the original idea for Sussex University, as expressed in David Daiches (ed) book “The Idea of a New University”, written especially for Sussex.

That idea was for genuine education, for helping to form cultured and informed cosmopolitans of wide horizons and wide abilities, not merely and restrictedly for training in specific lines of employment. It had as an ideal the Aristotelian idea that education is for life, not merely for work.

These projected cuts and changes are a diminution of Sussex, a betrayal of its original purpose, and a real loss: because the world needs people of the kind Sussex came into existence to encourage.

It is a savage irony that Sussex should be cutting back and turning to the banausic trades, because these very trades – not least banking – have let us down and forced a recession upon us that makes such cuts necessary. If this is not a case of licking the hand that has beaten us! – instead of reasserting the highest ideals of a genuine university education aimed at fostering the critical, sceptical, thoughtful attitude which will challenge a society that turns everything into a question of cash – as the present administration of Sussex University itself is doing.

Professor Anthony Grayling,
Birkbeck, University of London.

Professor Grayling is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts. He was an undergraduate at Sussex between 1968-71, studied for an MA here in 1974-5, and continued to teach at Sussex part-time from 1976-9 while undertaking his doctorate at Oxford.

Dear Sir / Madam,

A document has come into my possession which might be of interest to your readers – an email, in fact, which the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, Michael Farthing, has sent to all undergraduates, explaining to them his plans for “the development of the University”. These plans consist of the sacking of over 100 staff and the closing down or reduction of a number of “areas”, so that the word “development” is somewhat ironic, but in keeping with the tone of the document, which is couched throughout in the worst bureaucratese. Thus: “Our aim is to continue to invest in successful areas in the University and grow our income where possible.”

As one might imagine, this is not good news for those disciplines which have always been seen as at the heart of the Humanities side of English universities. “In some areas”, the VC says, “there are no opportunities for sustainable growth and we need to make targeted reductions in those areas while continuing to develop our Univer-sity as a broad and balanced research-intensive institution across the arts and social sciences.” It is difficult to see how this last aspiration is to be met when it is followed by this: “In a number of schools we are now seeking financial savings, including Engineering and design; English; History, Art History and Philosophy; Informatics; and Life Sciences.” By contrast, predictably: “In academic schools with recent growth and good prospects for the future, we are pressing ahead with our growth and development plans, including the schools of Business, Management and Economics; Global Studies; and Media, Film and Music.”

Though he insists that “staff affected by the changes will receive our support and help”, none of the people so affected that I have talked to has received any such thing, and, indeed, it is difficult to see what form such support and help might take. The VC also insists, in his execrable English, that he is committed to “maintaining excellence in the student experience”, promising that “we will support your teaching, and we are not proposing to reduce contact hours” – presumably he will achieve this by working the remaining faculty even harder. “We will continue to invest in improving the student experience at Sussex”, he concludes. “One of our absolute priorities through this difficult process is our commitment to students and to the quality of the education and student experience we provide.”

Clearly, this university at any rate is being treated strictly as a business, with the least profitable branches closed and the most profitable ones developed. No doubt, in the light of the proposed changes to research funding criteria and the cuts recently announced by Lord Mandelson, vice-chancellors around the country are doing exactly what Farthing is doing. The question this raises is: Are universities really businesses? And if not, what are they? Are they to become forcing houses for the immediate economic development of the country and nothing else (i.e. are Business and Media studies to replace Engineering, English, History and Philosophy)? If that is what the country wants, so be it. But we should be clear that it means the end of universities as they have been known in the West since the Middle Ages.

Gabriel Josipovici, British novelist and literary theorist. As published in The Times Literary Supplement, Thursday 7th January 2010.
Josipovici taught at Sussex between 1963-98.

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