Back to the future: ‘efficiency gains’

When I began my academic career in the 1980s, one of the themes of public policy in relation to higher education was the concept of the ‘efficiency gain’. Of course this was just a fancy name for budget cuts, as what was meant was that funding cuts could be applied that would lead not to a deterioration in education or services, but a reduction in the waste of resources. For a while the British government required a year-on-year ‘efficiency gain’ from all the universities.

Now they’re at it again. Announcing the cuts to the teaching budgets of English higher education institutions, universities Minister David Willetts, accepted that things would be tough for the sector but suggested this could be overcome by ‘serious efficiency savings’. It is of course possible that further viable efficiencies are possible, but governments need to know that the capacity for efficiencies needs to be assessed by a proper investigation; it is not established simply because a minister says so.

All of which brings me back to a theme I have addressed here before: the impossibility of carrying on with the established higher education model in the face of a very major reduction in funding. It may be possible to maintain a different kind of university system that works to a different resourcing model, and that may use different teaching methods, but nobody – whether in government or in higher education – seems to be interested in pursuing this.

In the meantime one might advise the government that the ultimate efficiency gain would be to dispense with all the teaching. One could just admit the students, pocket their fees and hand them a degree certificate, without having to resource that pesky pedagogy.

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9 Comments on “Back to the future: ‘efficiency gains’”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Assume, for argument’s sake, that the minister is right and that it is possible to make big efficiency gains (say because universities are full of fat-assed academics who don’t so a proper week’s work). Would the universities in such a scenario make those gains, unprompted? In a nice competitive world this would happen automatically. But I don’t know if this fully describes British academia, I certainly don’t think it describes Irish academia.
    So there probably are significant inefficiencies. Whether they account for 1% or 51% of the budget I don’t know: its somewhere in between I guess.
    Its important though that the government doesn’t confuse a drive for efficency gains with micro-management as in the absurd (but vaguely Stalinist sounding) Employment Control Framework.


    • My point in this post, Kevin, was to suggest that ‘efficiency gains’ cannot just be ordered in the absence of any analysis of whether there *is* any fat. In the government vocabulary ‘efficiency’ simply means giving less money. There is a relationship between this and quality, and the approach being taken does not in any way address that.

      I don’t at all doubt that some efficiencies of a genuine kind are always possible, or that there should be encouragement to find them. But I doubt very much that the capacity for this in percentage terms is identical across all institutions, which is what such a cut presumes.

      • kevin denny Says:

        I agree. So the degree of fat varies and a sensible policy would be to reduce it i.e. selective cuts. I suppose there is a practical problem that the government or the HEA has difficulty knowing where the fat is. And it needs to cut spending in a hurry.
        My own guess is that where there are inefficiencies, they often arise from decisions that cannot be revoked i.e. Dr X or Professor Y are not worth their €100k but cannot be fired. So if you penalize those institutions with more of these guys there is no guarantee that quality will improve?

  2. Jo McCafferty Says:

    More grand sweeping statements from government without looking at the reality. I don’t know about other universities but our “central services” demand a 50% ish top slice before we even start – they may be considering efficiencies there but we are asked to tighten our belts at school level and the first thing that’s considered is reducing contact time with students, and also reducing assessment of those students. I was under the impression that our main goal in a university is to equip students with knowledge, understanding and where possible practial application of both.
    Incidentally, it’s amusing to hear people consider e-learning as the panacea. E-learning can be just as effective but it’s only cheaper in terms of physical space. In order for it to be effective, more not less time is required. Yes, there can be savings, but let’s look at where the money actually goes before axing teaching time and lessening assessment.

  3. James Says:

    There are, quite clearly, serious inefficiencies in the Irish third-level system. A prime example is the way in which our universities have expanded. DCU, formerly NIHE, for example was originally set up as a third-level institution specialising in hi-tech areas (sciences, computing, engineering), but it has expanded dramatically oncegranted university status.

    It, like every other institution, then found itself operating under the free-fees scheme which meant attracting students. Subset degree programmes (those with titles specifying a major ‘with’ minor subject) sprung up across the educational landscape and as soon had one university created a ‘new’ degree others would follow to prevent a recruitment advantage.

    The result of our rush to confer university status on institutions and to allow them to expand beyond their original focus is three Dublin universities and several ITs all within a radius of 20 miles of the city centre offering virtually identical programmes.

    This cannot possibly be sustainable.


    • DCU expanded programmes, but the only new area it went into since acquiring university status is Nursing, as part of a national policy in the matter. So your comment is not really accurate or fair.

      • James Says:

        I accept that the DCU Faculties may not have changed name or been added to (with the exception of Nursing), but I don’t believe that the transfer to University status had absolutely no impact on the strategic direction of the institution from its NIHE roots or on its role in a broader context!

        Similarly, I can’t accept that the introduction of new degrees did not impact on that direction, alter the focus of the faculties themselves say, in terms of research, or the public’s attitude and perception of DCU as an institution.

        I should point out quickly that I am not criticising DCU, objecting to its university status, or longing for some bygone age of NIHE’s. What I am arguing is all our unversities found themselves tied into a free fees scheme and ended up, in an attempt to attract students, with broadly similar degrees.

        There is now little differentiation between the institutions with the result that we have a costly replication of function throughout the sector.

        I stood at Higher Options conferences and watched as at least three universities suddenly had courses ‘with forensic science’. Strangely this was right about when CSI started. At least two universities were beginning sports science degrees almost simultaneously. UCD, TCD, DCU, DIT, Maynooth, UCC, UCG and UL (and probably others) all offer physics degrees with a total number of students around the 200 mark. With eight departments, and only 200 students, the question is could some become graduate rather than undergraduate schools?

        My point is that this replication of function is costly and should be looked at.

  4. Al Says:

    It is a game over situation even to accept the linguistics from Govt.
    It is pure BS to pull funding and expect no change in quality or quantity. And they should be called out on it as the first point of any reply.
    Even if it means a round of hemlock….

  5. Fred Says:

    Ferdinand efficiency cannot be order and I think that on average there are not significant “inefficiencies” at least in England and Scotland.
    However I think that we (and the government) should also look to the other side of thinks. What Universities offer to local and wider UK society (in financial terms).

    Look the following link. It is from the association of business schools and have references to the contribution of UK business schools and universities in financial terms.
    It has also 4 case studies wich include London Business School, Robert Gordon University, Cardiff and Nott. Trent.

    http://www.the-abs.org.uk/files//BS%20Impact%20Study%202010.pdf


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