George Osborne has announced the scale of savings to be achieved by government departments in England. Some of the savings are to be achieved through planned (I use the word loosely) underspends and ‘efficiency gains’ in Whitehall. But they also involve cuts to spending on services, including specifically – and ominously – higher education and further education.
Quote how the budget cuts will be achieved is not yet clear. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which handles the further and higher education budgets, has agreed to a reduction in spending of £450 millions, as its contribution to total government savings of over £3 billions. And at the risk of repeating myself, I think it significant that George Osborne’s statement specifically mentions further and higher education, presumably reflecting his earlier discussions with the Secretary of State.
Andrew McGettigan suggests that part of the BIS contribution could be achieved by selling off student debt and converting student grants into loans, but it looks to me as though there will still need to be direct reductions in the funding available to colleges and universities. It may well be that the Secretary of State for BIS will have strong views on where the axe should fall, and that he will make this clear in his annual letter of guidance.
And of course any reduction in the BIS budget for further and higher education means that the relevant Whitehall allocations to the devolved administrations will also be reduced. In Scotland, the devolved government has chosen to protect higher education spending and concentrate cuts on part-time further and adult education. Given the political kudos of Scotland’s position on university tuition fees, I would expect this process to continue.
The Chancellor’s statement also identifies considerable reductions in the budgets for other areas, including the non-schools spending of the Department for Education, and the Department of Communities and Local Government. I suspect that local government, across the whole of Britain, has cut its adult education provision so drastically in the last fifteen years that it no longer offers much of a saving, but otherwise the future is not looking too rosy.