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Bowled Over

Britain's austerity budget rolls straight toward science and engineering.

LONDON – Britain’s new government has embraced financial austerity with a righteous fervor. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is readying a radical bid to rein in the United Kingdom’s huge budget deficit by deeply slashing public spending, including its higher education budget. It’s an open question whether the plan makes economic sense. But already Britain’s top universities are warning that the expected cuts to spending will seriously threaten their ability to provide quality education and research and put at risk their world-class reputations.

The bloodletting is already under way. The previous Labor government, which lost last May’s general election, chopped $724 million from this year’s higher education budget. And soon after taking office, the new government sliced $290 million more. Universities were forced to undertake tough cost-saving measures, including layoffs.

Newspaper reports here say university leaders have been warned that when George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, announces a comprehensive spending review in late October, it will include additional, massive cuts in higher education funding – perhaps as much as 35 percent over five years, the biggest such reduction since the 1930s. Universities are bracing for more faculty and staff layoffs, larger class sizes, a reduction in course and degree offerings, closed libraries, and top academics heading for the exits.

What’s more, at many universities, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) schools and departments are bearing the brunt of cutbacks, and will most likely continue to do so.

Why are schools swinging the budget ax hardest at STEM education? For the same reason bank robbers target vaults: That’s where most of the money is. It costs more to educate STEM students than those in other curricula. The first major casualty: King’s College London, part of the University of London system, is shuttering its 172-year-old engineering division, which employs around 39 faculty.

Staff and students from Lambeth College march through south London on June 21, 2010, to protest education budget cuts. PHOTO BY: FRANTZESCO KANGARIS/AFP/Getty Images Staff and students from Lambeth College march through south
London on June 21, 2010, to protest education budget cuts.

Many academics, as well as science and business groups, argue that it’s a false economy to hit science education now, given its growing economic importance. “I don’t understand the logic,” says Bill Wakeham, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, who earlier this year authored a study that called for more spending on engineering education. “If the government wants to have more engineers, it will have to pay for them.” The Confederation of British Industry told the Financial Times that STEM degrees “are of huge value to the economy” and that cuts “would be a matter of real concern for business.” The Russell Group – a collection of Britain’s 20 largest research universities – says that “the U.K. cannot afford to make even more cuts to outstanding universities, which are crucial to economic recovery.”

But Downing Street argues it has no choice. Britain is awash in red ink. Like many other Western nations, Britain saw its deficit soar during the recent deep recession as it spent heavily to prop up its ailing economy and bail out failing banks. The glut of government pounds helped stave off a Great Depression but left a gaping hole in the country’s finances. Last fiscal year, deficit spending hit nearly $227 billion, close to 12 percent of GDP, the worst rate within the 27-member European Union. Britain’s net national debt is around $1.3 trillion, or around 62 percent of GDP. While U.S. debt is comparable in relation to GDP, British Prime Minister David Cameron says Britain can’t count on foreign lenders, as the United States does, to shore up the economy.

The coalition government’s goal in cutting spending is to bring down the deficit to 2.1 percent of GDP by 2014-15. Critics of the plan – and there are many – claim that the government is trying to cut too much too quickly, unnecessarily jeopardizing a very fragile recovery and risking a slide back into recession.

Unlike in the United States, where public colleges are supported by state budgets, U.K. universities get most of their money from the national government. Tuitions are capped at around $4,675 a year, so schools can’t compensate for less federal money by charging students more.

Quality to Suffer?

The blow to STEM education follows a period of rapid expansion in programs at many schools and coincides with increasing demand for students with those skills. The Royal Institution, Britain’s vaunted science academy, predicts that by 2014, the country will need an extra 2 million workers well-grounded in STEM. Triumph, the iconic motorcycle manufacturer, wants to hire an additional 25 engineers this year. Dyson, the high-tech vacuum-cleaner maker, plans to add 350 engineers to its payroll. Many engineering schools report that they are receiving more applications than they can accommodate.

But STEM freshmen may find campus life this autumn regularly disrupted. A number of U.K. schools were hit by strikes and demonstrations by faculty and students earlier this year, and more marches, walkouts, and sit-ins are expected as even deeper cuts are unveiled. More important, students may also start to find that the cuts and turmoil are putting the quality of their education at risk.

At the University of Reading, around 37 academic jobs could be lost – many of them in the School of Systems Engineering – in a bid to trim around $15.5 million from the budget. The uncertainty is unnerving, says James Anderson, who has taught computer science at the engineering school for 21 years: “The immediate consequence is that staff are demoralized and distracted, so we are less able to support students.” Some modules may have to be dropped, he says, and “classes will be getting bigger.” Sinead Brennan, president of the Reading University Students’ Union, is also worried: “Students are concerned about the possible effect [of budget cuts] on the learning experience.”

Larger classes are also the new norm at University College London, which is dealing with a 6 percent budget reduction.

Dean Richard Catlow says that at his School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, as well as UCL’s School of Engineering Sciences, “we are coping with larger class sizes, but there is a bit of strain.” Catlow’s school made up for some of the lost money by recruiting larger numbers of foreign students, who pay higher tuitions. That’s one reason why class size is increasing; another is fewer teachers. There’s no hiring freeze at UCL, but Catlow says whenever there’s a vacancy, “we look at it very critically.” Most academic and support staff are not being replaced when they leave.

“We are coping with larger class sizes, but there is a bit of strain.” – Richard Catlow, dean of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, University College London

When King’s College London shuts down its engineering division in 2013, it’s not clear what will happen to its teaching staff. University spokesperson Allison Denyer would say only that “staff issues are being worked out.” KCL has said that it’s closing the school because it received a poor rating for research quality from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which means less research funding. The Financial Times quoted a university spokesman as saying the engineering division “was wasting money.”


Other U.K. schools where faculty layoffs loom include the Universities of Leeds, York, Glasgow, Liverpool John Moores, Westminster, and Sussex. Meanwhile, the University of Hertfordshire canceled plans for a $17.5 million science building. So far, “research is being protected,” says Mark Ormerod, a professor of chemistry at Keele University. But university leaders say Britain already spends less on research than other leading countries and risks a brain drain.

Amid the drumbeat of bad news, some STEM-heavy universities were able to waltz around the economic fallout – at least for this year. Imperial College, the country’s leading engineering school, is shrugging off a cut in government funding of less than 1 percent. The Universities of Cambridge and Oxford got a slight bump in funding. But it’s unlikely that any schools can avoid the steep cuts in aid expected next year.

What’s the solution? Britain’s top schools are lobbying for the cap on tuition fees to be lifted. It’s expected that a study headed by John Browne, the former CEO of British Petroleum, will call for a gradual lifting of caps to market rates. The report is due out in October, just ahead of the budget announcement. Under that plan, most elite schools could eventually charge undergraduates around $10,000 a year, and STEM students twice that amount. But some academics say that if the government uses higher tuitions to further cut direct aid to schools, the net effect might be minimal. “Higher tuition is not a magic-bullet solution,” UCL’s Dean Catlow says.

As university officials await the final word from Downing Street, Catlow admits: “There is a lot of anxiety.” Deeper cuts of the kind predicted “could lead to a vicious cycle” within Britain’s STEM education sector, he says, forcing many top academics to flee to overseas schools or industry. Accordingly, schools’ reputations would take a dive and research money would dry up, accelerating a race to the bottom. And that’s a race none of Britain’s universities wants to win.

Thomas K. Grose is Prism's chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.




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