Different funding, different universities?
Right now there is a higher level of uncertainty in higher education, across much of the world, than has probably ever been seen before in peacetime. As the world economy grew rapidly over the past decade or two governments pumped money into universities, though at the same time also often significantly increasing higher education participation. Now everything has changed, and all over the world funding for universities and colleges is being cut. In addition in some countries some of the funding burden is being re-allocated from the taxpayer to students.
A current example of the kind of pressures that are now threatening to overwhelm the system is that of the University of Glasgow, where a battle is being fought about the extent and nature of expenditure cuts. According to a report on the BBC website, the university is seeking to implement cuts of £20 million, and areas where cuts are thought to be imminent include language courses, nursing, social work and anthropology. This raises another issue: as cuts force universities to close certain subject areas, will this change the way in which the university interacts with those who take an interest in its activities?
Whether the cuts perhaps planned by the University of Glasgow go ahead or not is, to the rest of us, not as emotive a subject as it is to staff and students there. But where a university’s portfolio of teaching and research has been planned and developed over a number of years, stripping out parts of it at short notice may have an impact well beyond the areas affected. The whole university may become a fundamentally different institution.
Right now higher education in a number of countries is being buffeted by the economic storm. We may think that all this is a shame, but we must escape from our debt burden as soon as possible, and so our economy will now have to work very differently from before. But what of the universities? Are they still to be the high value education and training ground for the next group of national leaders? What does government expect of them: are they to be agents of economic recovery, or are they to teach a probably contracted range of programme options and avoid over-ambitious research programmes? Are they to be single-location institutions, or does the multi-campus model still have some life in it? What will be an acceptable mix of disciplines, and which ones can a university just leave out?
The strategy of just muddling through while the storm rages will not work for most universities. We now need to develop a new vision for a new university sector.