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.