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Reducing waste in education - Is this a cut too far?

26 May 2010

The new coalition government has given us a flavour of what is to come in terms of spending cuts. To borrow from a recent BBC correspondents report on the likely outcomes of the emergency budget later this month: the scalpel has made its mark – the axe has yet to come. But the GBP6.2bn cuts announced a week ago – while universally recognised as being a necessary move to stem waste - have not exactly passed unchallenged. Education - one of those sectors, along with Health, that we all hoped were to be spared - has taken quite a hit in this first round and the voices of dissent are getting louder by the minute.

Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) director, Imran Khan, for example, is “surprised and disappointed” that the higher education budget – which includes funding for university science and engineering departments – has taken a GBP200m cut. In a CaSE statement issued following the government’s announcement, he said: “Science, engineering and universities generate jobs and promote growth, and are already under-funded. The UK spends less on R&D than any other G7 country, bar Italy, and we won’t become a truly modern and competitive economy until that is addressed.”

On the Treasury’s announcement that the 20,000 extra University places for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) students is to be cut back to 10,000 extra places, Mr Khan expresses equal concern. “The UK has a shortfall in STEM graduates, and we consistently hear from industry that a highly-skilled workforce is vital for encouraging private investment,” he says.

“Universities had already been asked to make efficiency savings in order to fund the new 20,000 places (beyond the first year of funding). The Government [on Monday May 24] said that enough ‘good value-for-money bids’ had not been received for all of those places. This suggests that finding £200m of savings from the sector is unrealistic, and puts into question whether funding for the remaining 10,000 places is achievable. The university sector is already struggling and making redundancies, and this will further damage prospects for individual students and academics, as well as the industries that rely on them.”

The Russell Group, which represents the UK’s top twenty research-intensive universities, has already outlined the dangers of under-investment in university research and its wider implications for the UK economy. Russell Group director general, Wendy Piatt says that without more investment in higher education, the UK risks jeopardising the competitive advantage which has made its universities the envy of the world. UK universities currently punch well above their weight in the international sphere, she says, but research-intensive institutions are under-resourced in comparison with their international competitors. While universities in the UK are bracing themselves for a period of austerity and uncertainty, other nations are pouring investment into their universities at this key time before the world economy picks up.

In the meantime, the issue of English university funding and student tuition fees is in limbo as it is currently being reviewed under the chairmanship of Lord Browne, whose committee is due to report to government in the Autumn. But what prospects are there for the wider field of education?

Becta, the quango whose remit is to oversee the effective use of technology in our education system, has been given the chop. Among its achievements, the organisation is currently working towards providing laptops and broadband to over 200,000 of the poorest children. Not unsurprisingly, Becta chairman Graham Badman expressed disappointment at the government’s decision. “Becta is a very effective organisation with an international reputation, delivering valuable services to schools, colleges and children,” he said following the announcement. He claims that procurement arrangements save schools and colleges many times more than Becta costs to run.

What next then, for other education quangos like the Qualifications & Curriculum Development Agency, which determines what our youngsters are to be taught and how their early progress through the education system is to be assessed; or, indeed, the Young Peoples’ Learning Agency, whose budget has been cut by GBP20m? Other quangos facing severe budget restrictions include the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services (to be reduced by GBP16m), the Children's Workforce Development Council (GBP15m), the Training and Development Agency for Schools (GBP30m) and the School Food Trust (GBP1m).

There is, however, some positive news to report. Funding for schools, Sure Start and cash for the education of 16 to 19 year-olds will not be affected by the present cuts, as these budgets have been ring-fenced, alongside the NHS, Defence and International Development spending. Moreover, the Liberal Democrat pledge to provide a ‘Pupil Premium’ - money to be set aside to benefit schools with intakes comprising a large proportion of disadvantaged children – is set to go ahead. And there is good news, too, for apprentices. Some GBP150m of savings arising from these budget cuts is to be redirected to fund 50,000 new apprenticeship places.

The Queen’s Speech, delivered last Tuesday also confirmed the Coalition’s determination to go ahead with its academies plan. More schools in England and Wales will now be given the freedom to become academies, allowing them to opt out of local authority control. This will give teachers more responsibility to decide on curriculum, and the move should also result in overall savings, but National Union of Teachers general secretary, Christine Blower strikes a cautionary note. Reducing Local Authority grants could have a direct impact on the many essential services that they provide to schools and therefore have a direct impact on schools and pupils.

So, the pledges have been made; essentially, the easy bit is over and done with. Implementing them is another matter. There is little to doubt the wisdom of budget cuts in our present economic predicament, and while the education system must also take its share of the pain, there’s a lot at risk. Education is at the very foundation of our society and by eroding its resources, we could be piling up a whole lot of problems for the future.

Les Hunt

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