London — After five centuries of expansion, Britain's universities are suddenly being forced to contract -- and the academic community is up in arms. Pressure for massive cutbacks began mounting last year as Margaret Thatcher's government took a look at an economy in deepening trouble and at 45 universities spending around L1 billion ($1.8 billion) a year in public money.
The prime minister decided the universties must bear their share of government spending curbs. But now the men and women of academic realize how deep the Thatcher blade can slice.
Up to 3,000 university jobs will have to go. At least 12,000 university places for 18-year-olds will disappear. Some universities are threatened with extinction.
Reaction on campus has been a combination of shock, anger, and utter disblief. The University Grants Gommittee (UGC), responsible for administering university finance nationally, has been accused of insensitivity, favoritism, and a lack of understanding of the role of universities in the life of the nation.
All the signs point, however, to the surgery being performed resolutely and without significant modification.
In arguing its case for cuts, the government can point to declining school populations and a consequent easing of pressure on university places in the long term. And it can also -- fairly -- insist that everybody should accept the need for economy in a time of national economic difficulty.
But what the government appears not to have anticipated was the way the grants committee would interpret its decision to reduce university spending.
Under the complex formula worked out by the UGC, some universities will suffer much more than others; by and large, the ones that get off lightest are those that have been operating longest.
While the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, for example, are having their cash grants cut by 5 percent and 3.7 percent respectively, money for Bradford University is to be slashed by 19 percent.
Even worse off will be the University of Salford, near Manchester, which will lose more than 40 percent of its grant and one-third of its student population.
The case of Salford is continuing to produce some of he loudest cries of outrage. Nearly 200 British companies have bought display advertisements in national newspapers, attacking the cust there.
Salford has prided itself on providing university education closely geared to the requirements of industry. It calls itself "an applied university." Its registrar, Stuart Bosworth, declares: "We are concerned about our impact on industry, commerce, and the life of the nation."
With its student roll cut to under 3,000, Salford may not be able to survive. Certainly a large chunk of its teaching program will have to be lopped off.
Business firms are lobbying the government to persuade it to save Salford from this fate.
Even universities that have not been asked to make such heavy sacrifices are arguing that the UGC, in executing government financial policy, has acted rashly , and that the entire university system will suffer.
According to an estimate by the Committee of University Vice-Chancellors, the cuts nationwide will mean reducing the intake of undergraduates by 10 percent in each of the next two years.
The committee argues that compulsory redundancies among academic who have tenure may cost the universities more than the government hopes to save in making the cuts.
To retire 3,000 academics over three years, as planned, might cost as much as L250 million ($450 million) in compensation.
Defenders of the grants committee's strategy have tended to suggest that smaller universities operating close to large, well-established universities ought to accept major cust and hand over some of their existing work to "the big boys."
Naturally, "the small boys" don't see things that way. Administrators at Salford claim the work they do for industry is unique and could not be duplicated by its much larger neighbor.
Their view is supported by the companies that are urging the government to grant Salford a reprieve.
Another argument in favor of the grants committee's approach to the cuts is that it tried to establish a bias against the arts and toward engineering. And yet Aston University near Birmingham faces an 18 percent cash cut that will mean reductions in its engineering faculty -- the second largest in Britain.
Opponents of the UGC and its economy program point out that of its 20 members , nine went to Oxford or Cambridge. None went to universities hardest hit by the economies.
Inevitably the cry is being heard from the younger universities that an "old boy network" has been at work, preserving the gnarled branches in the groves of academe and mercilessly hacking away at new foliage.
Fair or not the cuts are sparking the sharpest controversy anyone can remember occuring in Britain's universities.