Britain trims back a 500-year tradition -- and future hopes

Weeds now have a new lease on life in the car parks, roads, and paths of a large university campus here in the north of England. Salford University has cut back applications of weedkiller to one a year.

That's not all. Inside campus buildings, all painting and interior decorating have ceased. More students use the stairs because three elevators have been mothballed, and the library now charges everyone full rate for photocopying.

In these as well as in larger ways, Salford is on an emergency crash course to save money - a lot of it, and quickly.

The campus is at the heart of one of the most dramatic events in the world-renowned British university system for the last 500 years - a sharp cutback in government funds as part of the Thatcher government's overall economy drive in the midst of recession.

Most of the other 46 British universities have been cut as well - an 8.5 percent reduction in government grants over three years. It actually works out to between 11 and 15 percent, because subsidies to overseas students have been cut and many of those students are going to the United States and elsewhere.

Around Britain, from Oxford to Salford, about 1,800 academics holding tenure have seen the writing on the wall and have agreed to resign. Almost all of them are over 50. About 3,000 more teachers are to go by next September, as well as 6 ,000 nonacademic staff.

Some are teaching elsewhere. Some are abroad. Others are consultants with industry. At least one is breeding sheep.

Currently Britain has about 33,000 full-time academics, who teach just under 300,000 university students.

The students are an elite group: Less than 7 percent of 18-year-olds here ever set foot on a campus, compared to 40 percent in the US. By 1984 they will be even more elite.

Estimates of the number of students who will be unable to find places by 1984 ranges from 12,000 to 44,000, depending on how the figures are compiled and whether you ask the government or the Association of University Teachers (AUT).

Predictably, the British air is filled with cries of alarm, government rebuttals, and fierce arguments about the accuracy of government statistics and predictions.

No campus, however, has been hit as hard as Salford, which has close links to industry. Two-thirds of its students specialize in science and engineering. And between 1975 and 1979, Salford did better than all but three other universities in the country in finding jobs for its graduates.

Critics of the cuts say it is wrong to force reductions at this type of university at a time when British industry urgently needs stronger science and engineering sectors to compete abroad.

Salford has had its government grant slashed by 44 percent between the 1981- 82 school year and the one that begins in September 1984. It has been forced to eliminate 25 courses, from music to the collision of atomic solids. It is shrinking the teaching staff by 200 and cutting students from almost 4,000 to close to 3,000. The cuts came like a bombshell in mid-1981.

Salford is a relatively new university, raised from technical college status in the 1960s. Officials conclude that the conservative government is biased against blue-collar courses and favors the more traditional academic universities such as Bristol, Oxford, and Cambridge.

In interviews, government officials deny the charge, insisting the overall money target was imposed by the Department of Education.

Yet the cuts, whose details have never been officially explained, have been puzzlingly uneven. Bath University was not cut at all, and even gained some funds. Oxford and Cambridge have to make some reductions, but are cushioned by heavy endowments and research funds.

Salford, with its engineering and science labs and a proven record of finding jobs for its graduates, suffers. So do other ''industry'' campuses such as Aston (Birmingham), Bradford, and Surrey.

They now join the AUT, in arguing that Britain cannot afford to go without Salford-type science and engineering graduates.

The official reply is that universities must bear their share of cost-cutting. Besides, Britain's university system grew too fast and became too unwieldy in the 1960s. In 1945 Britain had 17 universities. Today it not only has 46, containing six times as many students, but 230,000 in technical colleges , and 260,000 part-time. The government counts 396 non-university institutions in which students can take degrees of various kinds.

The cuts, officials insist, preserve a full range of options. They reduce competition between campuses. They save $:200 million. They should strengthen science and engineering by eliminating such ''fringe'' courses offered by Salford and others as music, drama, and archaeology.

Although 1,800 teachers have been persuaded to take early retirement so far, not one was directly fired. No universities are being closed.

Critics say that the cuts are counterproductive. They are not only weakening such subjects as Russian, history, archaeology, and drama, but they are reducing computer sciences and electronics. In belated recognition, the government has promised between $:20 million and $:30 million ($32-$48 million) over three years to provide extra places for students in computer-related studies.

Besides, the critics say, government savings are being cut in half by massive severance payments to teachers.

A lecturer aged 59, earning $:18,500 a year, can win a pension of $:9,000 a year plus a lump sum of $:28,000. A man of 49 with 24 years' service gets $:4, 500 a year when he reaches 65 - and an enormous lump sum of $:55,000.

''When I took up my job here,'' says Salford University Vice-Chancellor John Ashworth in an interview, ''the cuts had just been announced. Two-hundred academics would have to leave. I tell you, people were in tears at their desks. It was awful.''

So far, however, the energetic Dr. Ashworth, a former chief science adviser at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's official residence, has been busy turning adversity into opportunity.

He has managed to persuade 130 older teachers and lecturers to leave, even though many were highly reluctant to do so.

''It's morale, motivation,'' he said behind his wide desk. ''If you tap this wellspring in people, you can get them to do altruistic things, even though they themselves suffer in the short run. . . .

''These people had tenure. I couldn't just fire them. The government came up with not ungenerous redundancy [severance] payments, and we did our best to find them other jobs.

''But the key was not offering money. It was to help them see the contribution they could make - in this case, to the cause, vital for Britain, of improving ties between industry and the academic world.''

Between a half and two-thirds of those who took early retirement retain a part-time link with Salford. Five went abroad.

Professor Ashworth used his contacts to bring big-name guests to the campus, including Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He won an extra year to make his overall reductions. He took out two full-page advertisements in national newspapers and won industry support with the headline:

''Why is a university that performs so well being treated so badly?''

Last year alone the campus won $:2 million worth of outside contracts. Ironically, one was from another government department, to help businesses in the Manchester region.

A giant argument has begun over the precise impact the cuts are to have.

The government estimates 12,000 fewer students by 1984. But an AUT official said:

''The official figures use 1979-80 as the basis for student totals. Yet universities took in many more students than expected in 1980-81 to try and boost revenues.

''If you use 1980-81 as the base year and add in the growing number of 18 -year-olds between now and 1985, a total of about 44,000 young people will lose university places by 1983-84.

''In other words, by September this year, the number of university places will be effectively reduced by 44,000.''

The most dramatic impact so far has been on teachers persuaded to take early retirement.

Dr. George Gooberman was a senior lecturer in electronics at Salford. ''I could have stayed and fought them,'' he said in an interview, ''but the pressure was there. If you take early retirement the university awards you a pension as though you had stayed an extra 10 years. If you fight, you can lose it.

''I had a painful interview with the head of my department, and began looking around.''

A former student was at the Irish National Institute for Higher Education in Limerick, Ireland. Dr. Gooberman applied, was accepted, and began lecturing there in October 1982. His wife and three teen-agers will move to Ireland this summer. Although he is no longer a senior lecturer, his income is higher than before because he has a handsome Salford pension.

The whole system is different from the American one. There, universities charge high fees and receive large sums from their graduate alumni. Here, the government plays a much larger role.

Even older, heavily endowed campuses, such as Oxford and Cambridge, depend on government grants for running costs. The grants routinely make up 80 percent of university budgets. In newer campuses like East Anglia, they constitute almost 100 percent.

The money is handled by the University Grants Committee (UGC), a small body set up in 1919 to act as a buffer between state and campus and a pipeline of state funds.

The UGC allocates block grants, which universities spend as they see fit. In theory, the UGC can only advise on patterns of spending. In fact, it hands down detailed ''advice,'' which is usually followed.

The 1981 cuts are now beginning to bite hard. The government has allocated an extra $:13 million to help individual universities adjust to them. Some universities were told they could take in extra students in humanities degrees, and received the necessary funds.

Critics say the humanities are hard-hit. The government tells them to wait and see.

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