Britain’s leading universities would be forced to reduce student numbers and course sizes if cuts in undergraduate tuition fees are not matched by extra government funding, the Guardian has learned.
Students planning to take English, history or languages appear most at risk of missing out. The Russell Group of research universities said places would be in jeopardy if the government failed to top up funding for teaching classroom-based subjects after cutting tuition fees.
Vice-chancellors in the Russell Group, whose members include Exeter, Bristol and Sheffield universities, are bracing for a cut in the £9,250 fee to an expected £7,500 when the review of tertiary education funding in England commissioned by Theresa May is published.
University leaders are alarmed that the £9,250 fee barely covers the costs of classroom-based subjects. Without compensation from the government, the numbers taking popular humanities and social sciences courses would have to be reduced.
Tim Bradshaw, the Russell Group’s chief executive, said: “The prime minister’s post-18 review looks as though it could settle on a headline-grabbing cut to tuition fees alongside a series of teaching grant top-ups for certain subjects.
“We assume the government will want to show its commitment to fully fund clinical and stem subjects such as medicine and engineering, although experience tells us this can’t be taken for granted.
“Left hanging out to dry could be subjects such as English, history and modern foreign languages. Non-stem courses are studied by around 53% of undergraduates. With their funding slashed, it is inevitable their survival will be put in jeopardy.”
Vice-chancellors echoed Bradshaw’s comments. Koen Lamberts of the University of Sheffield said a tuition fee cut unmatched by extra income would mean the government was dictating which courses universities should teach.
“There is only so much teaching we can provide at a loss,” Lamberts said. “Of course we want to see science, engineering and maths protected, but linguists and economists are vital for the economy too.
“If the government cuts fees but doesn’t replace the money, with a promise it will keep up with future demand, ministers are effectively reintroducing a cap on student numbers. I don’t think Whitehall should get into this level of workforce planning and indirectly tell universities which subjects we should and shouldn’t teach.”
Under the current system of funding in England, all undergraduates pay £9,250 a year in tuition fees, and the government gives additional grants to top up the funding for high priority or expensive courses such as medicine, engineering and physics.
The Russell Group says domestic fee and grant income is already well below teaching costs for lab-based science, engineering and technology subjects and for other intermediate-cost subjects such as archaeology and the creative arts.
The group says it does not oppose cuts in tuition fees, only cuts in funding for universities. “Ultimately our concern is that, whatever the funding mechanism, there is enough money for universities to do their job properly and particularly to avoid constraints on places,” a member of the group said.
As public and political concern about the direction of post-16 education in England grew last year, the prime minister commissioned a panel headed by Philip Augar to report on its financing as part of the government’s review.
The panel’s report is expected to seek a rebalancing in post-school education, with students entering further education able to access loans similar to those going to higher education. It is also expected to improve support for neglected areas such as adult education and vocational training.
Augur’s report has been delayed for several months, first because of complex changes in accounting rules for student loans recommended by the Office for National Statistics, and more recently because of the government’s preoccupation with Brexit.
About 600 Department for Education staff, including several in senior positions, are said to be seconded to other government departments for Brexit-related reasons.
Outside the Russell Group any uncompensated tuition fee cuts would cause financial difficulties for a number of universities that are already struggling, particularly those that teach mainly classroom-based subjects to undergraduates predominantly from England.
The DfE would not comment on the review’s timing. “The government is conducting a major review of post-18 education and funding to ensure we have a system that is joined up, accessible to all and provides value for money for both students and taxpayers,” it said.