Higher education financial sustainability

Writing recently in the New York Times, the academic theologian and well-known commentator on US higher education Professor Mark C. Taylor noted:

‘WITH the academic year about to begin, colleges and universities, as well as students and their parents, are facing an unprecedented financial crisis. What we’ve seen with California’s distinguished state university system — huge cutbacks in spending and a 32 percent rise in tuition — is likely to become the norm at public and private colleges. Government support is being slashed, endowments and charitable giving are down, debts are piling up, expenses are rising and some schools are selling their product for two-thirds of what it costs to produce it. You don’t need an MBA to know this situation is unsustainable.’

What Taylor describes is of course not unfamiliar to us on this side of the Atlantic. We – at any rate in Ireland and Scotland – are for now not raising tuition fees, but we are seeing a serious reduction in funding income and in other sources of revenue. But at the same time, we are facing serious pressures to increase the volume of activity, thereby further lowering the unit of resource. And if you look through the menu of programmes universities are offering students, you will see that the choice is increasing, thereby piling on additional financial pressure.

Until now, we have tended to respond to all this by arguing aloud (and behind closed doors) with government, in the hope that they will see the impossibility if what we face and will have a change of heart as regards funding. In the economic climate we are in, that was never really going to work. So now it is time to get real, and to look more closely at what numbers can be accommodated within the system. But we also need to look again at how we cooperate with each other to deliver programmes, provide services and  procure supplies. We need to look again at our teaching methods and our research programmes.

As the financial climate worsened, many higher education institutions pointed to the importance of what they did and the impossibility of doing it fundamentally differently, and then just over-spent. We cannot do that any longer. We need a better debate about how we can adapt to provide the best education and research that we can, within the means now available to us. We need to have this conversation in a transparent manner. We need to ensure that we do not pass on a set of financially bankrupt universities and colleges to the next generation.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university

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