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As the economy improves the question of public investment in higher education (HE) must be revisited, Sir Alan Langlands, Chief Executive of HEFCE, told an Oxford University audience.

Speaking at Mansfield College on 25 October, Sir Alan said the Browne Report 'Securing a sustainable future for higher education' made a compelling case for change.

'Whilst acknowledging the exceptional economic circumstances that have brought us to this point – we must not accept that the decision to reduce public investment in higher education is fixed for all time,' he said.

In delivering the annual Hands lecture, Sir Alan said most other developed nations were investing in HE, science and research to drive economic growth and recovery. In England under the Browne proposals the balance of contributions to HE funding had moved away from the taxpayer and towards graduates and their families.

'This may appear to be trading one form of public funding for another, but the first is a permanent investment in future generations made by society as a whole and the second is a loan focused on an individual which attracts a real rate of interest and a long-term repayment schedule,' he continued.

Sir Alan said while public funding should be targeted towards clinical programmes, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, it was also crucially important to sustain universities with a broad disciplinary mix:

'...universities that value the social and cultural contributions of the arts and humanities and the contribution of social sciences in helping us think about how we live.

'The excellence and diversity of our higher education sector is still respected around the world,' he said.