The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Peter Mandelson, hammered another nail into the coffin of UK higher education in his letter of 22nd December to the Chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) confirming the Council’s budget for 2010/11. As has been widely reported (Independent, BBC, Daily Mail, Guardian) this announced that
- an additional £135 million ‘adjustment’ will be required, over and above the ‘£180 million efficiency savings’ currently being implemented and the £83 million deduction announced in October 2008 (albeit noting that the government has agreed to switch £84 million from universities’ capital baselines so that the teaching gtant reduction can be held to £51 million);
- ‘adjustments’ will be made to those institutions that have over-recruited, at a rate of £3,700 per full time under-graduate and PGCE student;
- the net effect on funding will be a reduction in the HEFCE Grant Settlement from £7,809 million in 2009/10 to £7,291 in 2010/11;
- HEFCE is being encouraged to develop proposals that will ‘provide significant incentives to enhance the economic and social impact of research’; and
- the government wishes ‘to see more programmes, such as foundation and fast-track degrees, that can be completed full-time in two years’.
I have commented elsewhere in detail on Mandelson’s announcement in November concerning his Department’s new framework for the success (or should this be ‘failure’) of British higher education, but this latest announcement of cuts, alongside the notion of two-year degrees warrants further critique. Six main points should be noted:
- These policies are driven by the completely unsubstantiated belief that we need to have 50% of our population going through university. Why? No logical argument is given in support of this, and there is no evidence that this would benefit society, our economy or our young people.
- Simply cutting university funding across the board is insane. If these cuts are essential, then underperforming institutions should be closed, thereby enabling the fittest and healthiest to survive.
- Rather than having two-year academic degrees, surely we should close down many universities and turn them into institutes specifically designed to train young people to be excellent in fields other than academic ones. It is nonsensical to believe that half of our population is able to undertake and benefit from the highest quality academic degrees. Surely it is better to provide these people with outstanding training in technical and other skills – be they plumbing, football, dance, culinary expertise, art and design, or marketing. Some of our ‘competitor’ countries, such as Germany have a fine tradition in this arena – why do we not learn from their successes? Much can indeed be taught and learnt intensively in two years in fields such as these.
- For academic subjects – and yes, there is still a need to train young people to the highest level of academic excellence – it is important that time is spent exploring literatures, gaining a rich grasp of a subject, developing critical analytical expertise, and reaching the forefront of knowledge in a discipline. This is not something that can be crammed into two years.
- University academics are rightly encouraged to do research alongside their teaching – indeed, it is this combination of research and learning that lies at the heart of what a university is, or at least should be, about. A university is not just a teaching institution. If students are therefore to be ‘taught’ to the same level of achievement in two years, academics will quite simply not have enough time to do the research to drive their disciplines forward. UK higher education will not just stagnate as it is at present, but will plunge into terminal decline.
- There are too many vested interests within the system, however, to enable the dramatic changes that I propose to take place. The net effect will therefore be for student fees to rise higher than already predicted. These cuts, alongside those announced in the pre-budget report, will lead to a dramatic increase in student fees, which are likely to reach on average around £5,000 a year by 2011, and £7,500 by 2013. Why is it that so many other countries in Europe are still able to offer ‘free’ higher education to their populations and the UK has decided that it is unable to do so? Our philistine government persists in seeing higher education as a private rather than a public good. Before long, English born students will vote increasingly with their feet, and go and study for free in excellent universities oversees where more and more courses are now being taught in English. What then for the UK’s remaining universities?