Protecting student services in the campus bubble

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In times of any sort of economic fragility, it is easy to drag the government into a quagmire of flimsy criticism over seemingly any move. And indeed, the way in which the government has redefined its fiscal relationship with universities over the last 10 to 15 years, it is almost understandable for students to feel cheated by their government. Yet only almost, and it is this tremendous student close-sightedness which is possibly the real issue. The University must also be – and show themselves to be – unwavering in their resolve to let this gap in funding affect students as little as possible.

The maths is simple and clear: income tax relief from donations in the period 2006 to 2011 provided £9m for the University, and the reorganisation of such relief under new guidelines will substantially cut this figure. The combined effect of encouraging fewer donors through the lowering of the tax threshold, and getting less relief from donation will leave a hole of considerable size in university funding.

This is, anyone will concede, damning news. But it must be placed in the context of the entirety of university funding – particular vis-à-vis the oft-repeated fee hike to £9,000 – and also be seen from outside the Heslington microcosm that, as students, we easily slip into.

In many respects, university accounts are in the running for their biggest financial stimulus for generations. In September, however many thousands of undergraduates paying £9,000 per annum will arrive. A bitter pill for students to swallow and for the University to administer, there is nonetheless going to be a terrific financial injection in the offing, helping to counteract to some degree any lost income from donations.
Additionally, to vehemently oppose or complain about the Treasury’s moves shows either an embarrassing lack of knowledge of the current financial situation, or a true naivety about how the University fits into the larger economic climate.

Falling back into recession following two financial quarters of contraction, the UK is in its largest depression of the last 100 years. The Treasury’s loss of £50-100m each year to charity tax relief is therefore part of the deficit which can and should be tackled. Similarly, the Matched Funding Donor Scheme for Higher Education, a £200m government pot providing £1 for every £3 donated to the University, is a purely superfluous measure in such times. Much vitriolic ink has been printed on Osborne’s austerity measures, but with the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis showing no sign of demise, attempting to ring fence the UK’s finances in one way or another is undeniably a sensible move.

the cap on donations will require the university to be more transparent with their finances

Yet, in the face of potentially losing such fiscal windfalls in the form of donations, the University must be keen and determined to protect funding for student services, and if the axe must fall anywhere, students concerns must remain the University’s predominant stock. The funding for societies, academia and sports clubs cannot be jeopardised by this looming deficit in university funding. The cap is a truly necessary move by the government, and though it will undoubtedly have an effect in one guise or another on students, the University must be prepared to tackle the question of how they will guarantee that the student experience goes unaltered.

With higher fees leaving students demanding more for their money and greater accountability, the cap on donations will require the University to be more transparent with their finances, and will be a crucial part of showing students the positive moves they are making.

A fear of this not being the case is possibly the motivating factor for an all too eager criticism of the Treasury’s moves, but they are clear-sighted and progressive changes. Despite primary individual concerns, we must be prepared to look out of and beyond our own campus-centric world. Yet this must be coupled with a university that is more primed than ever to focus in acutely on maintaining, upholding and improving standards.

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