News item in the UK: The sector’s funding body, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), announced (on 1 February 2010) that budgets are to be cut by £449 million for 2010/11. This includes:
* A 1.6 per cent reduction (£215 million) in teaching funding;
* Research budgets will remain the same as last year;
* A 16.9 per cent cut in capital funding;
* A 7 per cent reduction for funding of special programmes and initiatives.
In a letter to vice-chancellors setting out the budgets, HEFCE said it recognised that the reductions will be “challenging” to institutions.
Now what is to be done? Predictably, the higher education sector in the UK is arguing that this will affect perhaps 200,000 students who won’t be able to get a university education. A few weeks ago, the sector argued that the UK’s place as a top tier home of higher learning was at risk — but that came from the elite Russell Group, which represents perhaps the top of the top universities in the UK.
There are a number of possible ways of thinking about this. A few:
- Universities already get a lot of money, and they perhaps could reduce their running costs — think of the disorganised structure of the academic year, think of teaching loads or confused performance management (is it teaching quality, research or publications??), and pretty good employment contracts. (I had one once.)
- There are too many universities trying to do too much, and perhaps it would not be a bad thing if some either closed or merged with another institution. The loss of the old polytechnics deprived the higher education system of a sensible alternative. Since comparisons to the US are frequently made, it is worth noting that some of the US’s top institutions are not called “university”, anyway, but ‘institute’ and indeed ‘polytechnic’. One could also look for new innovative institutions to emerge to challenge much that universities do. For instance, research institutions without university links, or which are focused on compelling issues — check out the Santa Fe Institute, for instance. Universities are not the only fruit!
- Cutting capital funding is not such a bad thing, given the horrendous financing of a state-sponsored capital funding body. Better universities learn how to build collaborative relationships with sources of capital, than expect their funding automatically to come from the state.
- Perhaps too much inadequate research is done, poor deployment of intellectual effort at reaching wider learning communities, responding to new ways of structuring learning beyond the rather tired full or part time dichotomy, and so on.
But of course, the key dilemma remains, what is to be done?
I take an optimistic view, but I would put the challenge at the door-step of the universities.
Rather than complain, prove that 800 years of public and private investment hasn’t been wasted, and come up with sensible solutions that would establish a sustainable approach going forward. I doubt 200,000 or 200 students would be disenfranchised as a result, new ideas would emerge.
A recent book review in the Financial Times of Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, would be a good place to begin some fresh thinking. The reviewer, Christopher Caldwell, notes:
Starting in the 1970s, professors, newly alert to injustices in society at large, took aim at credentialism and departmentalisation in every nook and cranny of American life – except, Mr Menand notes pointedly, their own. The professorial hierarchy continued to rest on a system of arduous PhDs (raising high barriers to entry), “disciplinarity” (denying the authority of the non-credentialed to teach or even discuss academic subject matter), and tenure (jobs for life). It was a system well-suited to monopolising bureaucratic power, but less well-suited to the free flow of ideas. Menand cites a 2007 study to show that, in the 2004 presidential elections, 95 per cent of the social science and humanities professors at elite US universities voted for John Kerry and 0 per cent (statistically speaking) for George W. Bush. Monopolies produce smugness and sameness in universities, just as they do anywhere else.
The title of this blog entry takes from a line in the film Independence Day, where the President says to the Geoff Goldblum character, ” And we’ll see if you’re as smart as we all hope you are” It is now time for the universities with their massive subsidised top-tier braintrust put on their thinking caps, stop playing victim and take responsibility for the solution. The university-based economists let us down quite badly with failing models of our economies, and we are all paying for it in one way or other. Let’s not see two in a row.