Funding a British education

Photo caption: Students walk past the Radcliffe Camera building in Oxford city center at the start of the academic year on Oct. 8, 2009 in Oxford, England. British universities may lose their international standing because of funding cuts. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

BRISTOL, U.K. — Britain has historically been a leading producer of academic excellence. But in the wake of the economic recession, with government funding significantly lower than its academic rivals, there is growing concern that the United Kingdom’s international standing is slipping.

The elite Russell Group — the organization that represents the top 20 research universities in Britain — claims that by 2013 their universities will face a 1 billion-pound funding deficit. This coupled with the reduction in government investment is a serious concern for universities, academics and students.

A collection of the U.K.’s leading economic historians have publicly urged the new government to invest in the country’s “role as an international hub for learning.” The letter, created by the Members of History and Policy Network, warns that public spending cuts endangers knowledge-based growth and the economy.

The coalition government and the country’s new prime minister, David Cameron, have however remained silent over the issue of university funding, waiting for the results of the Browne review — an independent enquiry into the issue.

In the meantime, Britain’s international rivals are ploughing resources into their universities. A recent report by the Russell Group has shown that America spends more than double on university funding than the United Kingdom. France has made an $11 billion investment to achieve their goal of producing “the best universities in the world.” And China is soon to have the largest output of graduates. All of which threaten Britain’s standing as a world-class center for learning, said the Russell Group.

The University of Oxford — one of the world’s oldest and most famous universities — said that government funding and tuition fees only pay half the cost of teaching.

Ruth Collier, Oxford’s head of press and information, said that the university was subsidizing the 50 percent deficit by diverting money from other areas, such as postgraduate funding, equipment and revenue produced by the Oxford University Press.

“The university has been able to preserve excellence despite underfunding, but this cannot continue indefinitely and is threatened by the prospect of further funding cuts,” Collier said.

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The ability to draw revenue from other areas is not an option for many universities. One of the U.K.’s top universities, the University of Bristol, said it needs to reduce its annual costs by 15 million pounds to become financially stable.

To achieve this, the University of Bristol has controversially proposed severe cuts to its degree programs, departments and staff, sparking protests from staff and students.

According to an academic at University of Bristol, who asked to remain anonymous, the university has become too concerned with commercialism and forgotten its true role. “If you are a university you are in the business of research, the core activity of a university should be to generate new knowledge and then teach,” the academic said.

The obsession with generating money has caused a devaluing of certain subjects. In Bristol’s case, their engineering, science and medical departments produce the most commercial research and overshadow the cultural, social and intellectual significance of other departments.

One such department is the Center of Deaf Studies, which, after 30 years of training interpreters and contributing to groundbreaking research into the deaf community, is facing huge cuts.

“They are shutting it just at the point that a new generation of researchers are opening up philosophies and policies relating to deaf studies, tackling issues and contributing to the empowerment of the deaf community,” the Briston university academic said.

Bristol is also planning to make significant staffing cuts to its world-famous archaeology department.

Archaeology Ph.D. student Chris Kerns said the cuts show a lack of understanding about how research, teaching and learning take place.

“Archaeologists work as a team,” Kerns said. “Having the right amount of diversity in staff allows a department to collaborate more effectively instead of requiring outside expertise to complete projects.”

Kerns, originally from America, came to study in the U.K. for its academic reputation. “I came specifically to work with the world’s leaders in the area I was specializing in. When it came to working on my Ph.D., Bristol was my top choice because of my supervisor,” Kerns said.

However, now that universities are tightening their belts in the wake of a funding crisis, the attraction of British universities is waning. “After all these cuts I think many British universities are going to have a hard time getting international students here,” Kerns said.

International students might not be the only ones turning away from British universities. There is a growing concensus among postgraduates and researchers that it is time to jump ship.

“It’s harder for people who are finishing their Ph.D.s to get a position at a university in the U.K.,” said Ravinash Kumar, a University of Bristol Ph.D. student in chemistry.

Last year, of Bristol’s four Ph.D. chemistry graduates, two went abroad for research positions and two are not currently working in the field, Kumar said.

Academics are hoping the government remembers the true value of knowledge and invest in it before Britain’s ability to generate research and learning is lost to its rivals.