Higher education in a recession: cut it or grow it?

Two news items yesterday indicate how it is possible for governments to take very different views as to how higher education should be handled in a recession. In Washington US President Barack Obama unveiled his administration’s $3.8 trillion budget proposals, and amongst these was a7.8 per cent increase for education. The thinking behind that was explained by Education Secretary Arne Duncan:

‘We have to educate our way to a better economy. This is one area where the president is significantly increasing resources because he is convinced this is a long-term answer to the economic challenges that face our country.’

Part of the purpose of the budget increase is, according to the Obama administration, to make the United States ‘the world leader in college graduations by 2020’. In addition, there is a significant increase (to the tune of $3.7 billion) in research funding.

Meanwhile on the same day, England’s universities received the first official information from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) about next year’s allocations to higher education, and here there is a very different story. Funding for teaching is being reduced by 1.5 per cent, and the capital building programme by 15 per cent. ¬†Research funding is being maintained at current levels.

Of course different countries have varying levels of capacity to fund budget items, no matter how important. The United States has the ability to carry and to increase deficits (though not without consequences) in a way that, say, Ireland does not. But all countries are able to set priorities and to discriminate on policy grounds between different aspects of government expenditure. In America a strong focus has been placed on education and it is recognised as a key driver of economic recovery. Appropriate use of money allocated and close monitoring of the effectiveness of expenditure are of course important accompaniments to budget increases But having the capacity to educate the brightest minds and to attract the greatest talent to the country are invaluable supports during a time of economic crisis.

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