Higher education: predicting the apocalypse

In many developed countries, though not all, higher education is currently experiencing significant cuts in public spending. In Ireland we have seen major reductions in funding over the past two years, and more is expected. Universities have been warning, though on the whole in a restrained fashion, that these cuts may seriously compromise our international standing.

No such restraint in the warnings has been exercised by our United Kingdom colleagues. I have previously drawn attention to the recent announcement of budget cuts in the UK, and have indicated that these are part of a pattern that should make us look again at what kind of university model may be viable in the future. The British universities themselves have put it all rather more dramatically: Steve Smith, the President of Universities UK, predicted that universities would have to ‘slash the number of courses, students and staff’; while the Russell Group (representing what they describe as the UK’s 20 leading universities) warned that as many as 30 universities ‘may not survive’.

There is little doubt that we are facing a key moment in higher education, in which the pressures on public finances are producing serious collateral damage on universities. However, publicly predicting ‘meltdown’ (as the Russell Group has done) and the likely closure of about a quarter of the sector is perhaps not the best strategy for dealing with this. Such warnings will have an effect only if they strike a chord with the public and thereby lead to pressure on the politicians. All the evidence suggests that this is not what happens at all, and predictions of doom and collapse may actually irritate some stakeholders, not least because most will assume that the closure of 30 universities is not a likely prospect.

So apart from the need to assess how institutions can live, develop and eventually prosper in a very different funding environment, we may also need to consider carefully how we carry our messages to the general public. Clearly we do need to be open about the difficulties we face, and we need to find supporters and allies. But we should avoid predicting the apocalypse, not least because our predictions could themselves undermine our confidence and our ability to address our problems.

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2 Comments on “Higher education: predicting the apocalypse”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The Russell group and I must say the Irish Uni’s should be engaging with the very section of the population that they are pissing off. The People that have never sent anyone to College.
    Over this past 15 years there has been a huge number of people put through the system that will make good and sure that their own kids will sit within a Uni someplace. They now have that something written about by M Kennedy which came to us via Perry the other day. Something that they will never give up.
    The percentages, of course, differ vastly between the two Islands as does the attitudes of those paying. But where we should have something nearer to Scotland’s we have one riven with notions of Class, which is one hell of a lot nearer to the southeast of England. But I doubt that there is anyone in Ireland that does not know someone that has been to Uni. However the General Population is picking up on something -and I’m including Grads- that has that feel of the disappointed lover about it. Some of which has to do with the situation over this past ten or so years, where someone driving earth moving equipment, a ten week course, was being payed well into your tax bracket.

  2. Iainmacl Says:

    Of course, the context is important here and there is an election looming in the UK, so all interest groups are raising their voices. The universities are trying to suggest that their political allegiances cannot be taken for granted and that they want to ensure that funding of HE is an issue in the debate, hence the type of ‘outcry’ at the moment. However, it is also important not to underestimate the practical difficulties faced by UK universities in terms of the sheer scale of micromanagement, the numbers of students on courses and the challenge of a much more diverse student population than is the case in Ireland.

    The sad aspect is that there are conflicting university organisations and alliances in the UK and they do not speak with a single voice. The Russell group type institutions believe for example in the concentration of research funding whereas others believe in a more distributed model. So the only items that can unite the sector are (1) the overall level of funding, (2) decreasing institutional autonomy and increasing micromanagement/compliance/bureaucracy.

    The press and many politicians have for many years complained about standards and so-called ‘mickey mouse’ subjects to the extent that many of the public would perhaps not necessarily be sympathetic if some institutions were indeed forced to close or merge. Similarly, public support for fee-charging is not exactly high and so building support is, as you suggest, going to be tricky particularly when the inevitable massive public sector cutbacks are announced after the election whoever takes office. So yes it probably is a little early to go nuclear, but on the other hand with the election coming up, the universities are staking a claim to be part of the discourse and debate.

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