Into the Blue

So there we are.  Britain has a new government. For the time being. Last night David Cameron became the Prime Minister of a coalition government involving the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties (as I predicted). This is hardly a surprise given the arithmetic; Labour and the LibDems wouldn’t have had enough seats to command a majority anyway. It took five days from the election for the new Prime Minister to take over, much longer than the few hours it normally takes when there is a conclusive result, but nowhere near as long as it takes on the continent where coalition-building involves smaller and more diverse parties. In the UK the three main political parties are all centre-right, at least when it comes to economic policy,  and they share a great deal of common ground, so I never thought there would be much problem with the Conservatives and LibDems coming to a deal, which they have done.

Another prediction I got right was that Gordon Brown would resign as leader of the Labour Party, which he has also done. Who will lead the Labour Party now, and for how long, is anyone’s guess.

My third prediction was that the coalition government would fall within a year and there’ll be another general election. As for that, we’ll have to wait and see. It is, after all, a marriage of convenience. I think it won’t be long before a big row develops and the coalition unravels. There’s a lot of overlap between the two parties, but it’s a long way from the left of the LibDems to the right of the Tories. I give it 6 months to the first vote of confidence, assuming the Queen’s Speech passes.

Now that we have a government once more, the unreal business of electioneering is going to be set aside and all the facts that the media have kept quiet about during the election campaign will start to come out. For example, a story in the Financial Times of 11th May (yesterday), which has clearly been on the spike for the duration of the election campaign, reveals how huge cuts in university funding are set to fall hardest on science departments. Vice-chancellors have been making contingency plans for 25% cuts in recurrent funding for some time now, and there’s an obvious temptation to cut the more expensive subjects first.

I’ve already confessed my annoyance that the main parties connived to keep the details of the deep cuts they were all planning to implement out of the election campaign. Now we’re going to find out the true extent of what’s in store, and it’s too late to change.

Niels Bohr once said “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”, and I have no idea whether I’m being overly pessimistic here, but here are  some of  the things I think will affect my own life  as an astrophysicist working in a British university.

First, it’s now clear that there’s  no chance of a reversal in the fortunes of STFC. There never was much of a chance of that, to be honest. It’s more likely now that  STFC will now face further cuts on top of what it has endured already.  Fundamental science in the UK is in for a very lean time.

Second, university funding – the part that comes directly from central government – will be cut by at least 25%, probably more.  This could be achieved in a number of ways. The unit of resource (the payment made per student by the government to a university) could be cut. The number of students funded could be cut. Students could be charged higher fees or have less generous loan arrangements. These options are by no means exclusive, of course. They might all happen.

University V-Cs will have to make very difficult decisions  where to make savings:  some may tighten budgets across the board; others may shut entire departments to save the rest.

Another issue with university funding, however, is that it is not entirely the preserve of central government.  The Scottish Assembly runs higher education in Scotland, not the Westminster government. The Scottish Funding Council has generally funded universities more generously than HEFCE has in England. It’s also much less likely to implement higher tuition fees. More generally, with only one Scottish Tory MP in Westminster and a Scottish Nationalist-flavoured Assembly government, there’s no way of knowing what will happen in Scotland or, indeed, how much strain will be generated there by an English Tory government very few Scots voted for.

In Wales its a bit different. Here higher education is run by the Welsh Assembly government, which currently comprises a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition. With the Westminster government consisting of an alliance between the other two major parties in Wales we have two levels of administration roughly orthogonal to each other. In principle, the WAG could decide to protect the university system in Wales against the level of cuts being imposed in England, but since we already get a lower unit of resource from HEFCW than HEFCE allocates to English universities, I doubt we’ll be any different in future.

So this is where we’re headed:  fewer science departments with fewer staff with increased teaching loads with less time to do research and with less funding to carry it out and vanishing career opportunities for the scientists they’re supposed to be training.

Still, at least the bankers will get their bonuses.

20 Responses to “Into the Blue”

  1. “we already get a lower unit of resource from HEFCW than HEFCE allocates to English universities”

    Is there a reason for that?

    As to banker bonuses, they are in a somewhat different category, assuming that the bank wasn’t bailed out by the government. Of course, if there is a feeling that they reward behaviour which is bad for society at large, then whoever complains about them should push for legislation to forbid them. Aside from that, we have the case of a private company choosing how much to pay—nothing strange in that. I’m sure many footballers make more than even well paid bankers, but there is little criticism of this. That’s not necessarily wrong; it might indicate that there is a difference (i.e. in the case of bonuses—especially for short-term gains—there is incentive to damage society); again, in addition to complaining, one should push to get them forbidden. After all, in other cases where some group of people is doing something to harm society, society is not content in complaining or asking them to be nice.

  2. telescoper Says:


    The Welsh Assembly Government sets HEFCW’s priorities and they have generally put a larger proportion into Further Education versus Higher Education than is the case in England.

    It’s also an issue that Wales is much smaller than England. Concentrating research funds to the extent it is done in England would mean only Cardiff and Swansea would survive as major research universities. Since both of them are in South Wales, this would be politically unacceptable to WAG members from North Wales.

    A fundamental question that nobody wants to ask let alone answer is how many universities does Wales need? Or England, for that matter.

    Private companies (including banks and football clubs) can pay employees whatever they think is right. I don’t have a problem with that, although many football clubs in England and Wales (including Cardiff) are on the verge of bankrupcy because they’ve been paying ridiculously high wages to their players. What I’m really annoyed about is that the taxpayer baled out a number of banks whose directors have snaffled the dosh and paid themselves big bonuses out of the proceeds.


  3. OK, I was confused; a “lower unit of resource” means you get less money per student. But you say Wales has a higher priority. Or does less per student mean the same overall and hence more students (rather than fewer students and hence less overall)? I probably need to know the difference between higher education and further education first, though. 😦

    “What I’m annoyed about is that the taxpayer baled out a number of banks whose directors have snaffled the dosh and paid themselves big bonuses out of the proceeds.” I agree. A cap on salaries (and boni) should have been a requirement for being bailed out. (Which is why I wrote “assuming that the bank wasn’t bailed out by the government”.)
    (Maybe the government should have baled them out rather than bailing them out. 🙂 )

  4. “(rather than fewer students and hence less overall)” should read “(rather than the same number of students and hence less overall)”

  5. telescoper Says:


    Higher education (HE) means universities, further education (FE) relates to technical collges and other institutions doing vocational training or adult learning (continuing education) or other community based activities. He+FE are generally funded from the same overall pot. What I was trying to say was that Wales gives FE a bigger share of the pot than England. That’s a political decision by the WAG that no doubt reflects their view of the different socio-economic reality in the Principality.


    ps. As for the banks, they should just have been taken into public ownership.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    “As for the banks, they should just have been taken into public ownership”

    I have an almost equally low opinion of politicians and bankers. The connections between the two run deep, although neither likes to admit it because it shows that they are less than masters of the universe as they like to think.


  7. Bryn Jones Says:

    Wales needs one university: the federal University of Wales. It is very regrettable that over the past decade institutions within the University of Wales were able to persuade the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales to support their plans to set up as separate universities (Cardiff) or as quasi-universities (most of the others). This means a duplication of administrative effort and the loss of a coherent international brand image for Welsh higher education. It also means too many competing university courses that spread resources too thinly across the sector.

    The old university structure in Wales consisted of institutions in Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Bangor, which were joined in 1920 by a new one in Swansea. That provided for a small number of university institutions which were all research intensive. We have seen a major expansion in the past two decades through the conversion of a polytechnic and several higher education colleges to university institutions. It is excellent that this has provided more opportunities for students, but it has left too many competing universities, some research intensive and some teaching only. A return to the old University of Wales structure and the merger of some institutions would reduce some of the administrative duplication.

    Concentrating research in Cardiff and Swansea would be unacceptable, and rightly so. Bangor in North Wales has a record of research, as does Aberystwyth in Mid Wales, and there would be no justification for arbitrarily killing it to concentrate it just two institutions on the south coast. There would be justification for concentrating research within individual disciplines in two or three institutions per discipline, but this would require a strategic allocation of funds on a basis that is different to allocation based on the research assessment exercise we have today.

  8. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrew Kavanagh, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: Into the Blue: […]

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    Here’s the small print, ie the formal pledges of the Tory/LibDem coalition:

    It looks OK to me – certainly better than we would have had from Labour, and probably better than from the Tories alone. Some of the changes to repeal Labour’s more totalitarian Statist laws are especially welcome. But: will they be able to stick to it when the going gets tough; what else has been agreed that is not in it; and will it actually make the country better, rather than just get worse more slowly? David Cameron appears to me to be more a political opportunist than a man of conviction, not unlike a slightly more right-wing Tony Blair, and the trouble with opportunists is that what you see is seldom what you get.

    For now, this the only government we have got, so I wish it well…


  10. telescoper Says:


    Let me add that the appointment of David Willetts as the new Science Minister (actually Minister for Universities and Science) is cause for some modest optimism – he’s certainly no idiot and may turn out to do a good job. I’m hoping he’ll translate his much-stated skepticism about the REF into appropriate action. Putting Willetts in a position immediately junior to Vince Cable in BIS might be a signal that science is not to suffer disproportionately in the cuts. We’ll see.

    I suspect most of us scientists were unhappy that the election turned out the way it did, but I’m sure we’d all agree that a LibLab coalition with Brown continuing in office would simply not have been right. I think the parties have so far conducted themselves pretty sensibly and have formed a government. That’s the way it is and whether we like it or not that’s what we have to work with. It’s called democracy.


    P.S. I still think it’s not going to last!

  11. Anton Garrett Says:


    You give it a year at most, I give it two. Room for a bet there? (NB Rules are to be amended such that a 55% no confidence vote is needed to dissolve the government, otherwise it goes on to the full 5 years.)

    I do not remember Willetts was particularly impressive when he held junior offices before 1997. But he is certainly a good thinker – he published a book earlier this year about the interrelation of demographics and politics, with particular reference to the baby boom generation. It was fascinating reading and, so far as I could tell, apolitical.


  12. telescoper Says:


    I wasn’t trying to argue that all research should be concentrated in Swansea and Cardiff but that some rationalisation is obviously necessary. I’m not sure that resurrecting the University of Wales is the right way to go, although I think there’s scope for some sort of alliances to be built. In these days of distance learning it should be possible for smaller colleges to tap into advanced courses taught in the bigger places, for example.

    Some interesting numbers:

    England, population 49.1 million, number of universities, 91.
    Wales, population 2.98 million, number of universities, 12.

    If we had the same number of universities per capita in Wales as in England, there would be 5 or 6. And many would even argue that England has too many.

    By the way, there are only 3 universities in Wales that now offer physics degrees (Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Swansea; Bangor closed its physics department many moons ago).


  13. Anton Garrett Says:

    From “Yellow Submarine”:

    “Look out of the porthole, it’s a school of whales!”

    “There are lots of them, it must be a university.”

    “OK – University of Wales…”

    (From memory and not necessarily verbatim, but not so far off.)

  14. telescoper Says:


    There’s a lot of confusion about the 55% thing. My understanding is that the current rules on a no-confidence motion will stand, i.e a bare majority is needed. But under the current rules a no-confidence vote does not automatically trigger a general election; the Queen may instead ask someone else to form a government. In fact existing procedures do not allow parliament to dissolve itself – the PM must ask HM to do so. The proposal being discussed is to introduce new powers for the parliament to vote for a dissolution, and that’s what the 55% applies to. The higher threshold here means that a government might fail a no-confidence motion but survive the dissolution vote.

    This seems to me to be all part of a set of measures designed to ensure that neither of the coalition parties can cut and run early, by trying to force an election before the putative fixed 5-year term. It might stop one party bringing down the coalition and blaming the other so as to try to win an immediate election outright. If this is what it means – and I’m by no means sure – then my only worry is that 55% might be too low. Perhaps a 2/3 majority would be more likely to deter this sort of behaviour.


  15. Anton Garrett Says:


    “He is also due to announce a string of junior government posts. So far, Conservatives Nick Herbert and Damian Green have been named Policing and Immigration Ministers respectively”

    Wrong way round. It would have been delicious to put Damian Green in charge of police, after what Labour disgracefully gave the green light to the police to do to him.


  16. So, the UK has a coalition government and Germany has a realistic shot at winning the Eurovision Song Contest. How things have changed!

  17. Anton Garrett Says:

    The Eurovision song contest came several generations too late for Germany’s golden era of Lieder…

  18. “We agree to establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motions by December 2010. It is likely that this bill will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.”

    Wow. This from

    I’m far from agreeing with everything, of course, but this is interesting.

    The real test will be the reaction when Sarah Palin beomes POTUS in 2012.

  19. Anton Garrett Says:

    Apologies Phillip, I didn’t mention that when we were discussing PR, as I was concentrating on the House of Commons. The “upper chamber”, whose name House of Lords is currently passing away, is indeed likely to go PR, but it has little power compared to the House of Commons. I’m sure you can find the exact relation betwen the two on Wikipedia (it would take a long time to set out here).

  20. Oh yes, I’m aware of the difference, and it has little to do with the previous discussion of PR, which as you say was (implicitly) about the House of Commons. Nevertheless, it is a big change a) to move to an elected assembly and b) to have it elected via PR.

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