A vision for higher education?
Yesterday the British Business Secretary, Vince Cable, addressed the annual conference of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). His speech has been published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and it is worth reading in full.
Here are two extracts from the speech I find particularly interesting, in that they reveal the UK government’s vision for English universities. In the first of these extracts, the Business Secretary is encouraging institutions to review their operations and think again about their mission:
‘I must also ask whether you have done everything possible to drive down running costs. It’s a question that families will be asking if they see fees increase this summer by considerably more than universities need to cover the loss of teaching grant… More significantly, I am certain – based on the continuing efficiency measures being absorbed in central government – that more can be done to reduce administrative overheads, wage bills, and to run campus facilities more effectively. As with every other part of the economy, the pensions burden must be tackled head on. And some universities should be thinking seriously about a narrower and more viable mission as specialist teaching institutions – perhaps following the example of the great liberal arts colleges in the US.’
The message to universities here is: you’re overspending (though it’s hard to know what evidence he is using for this); and many of you don’t have a viable business model – you’re covering too many subject areas. I suspect that his final throw-away remark shows that he is not really familiar with the US concept of liberal arts colleges.
The second extract has him painting a broad brush picture of the university of the future, as envisioned by his government:
‘By mid-decade, I want to see a sector whose global reputation is enhanced beyond current high levels; whose contribution to economic growth is commensurate with its potential to stimulate growth; a competitive sector – with a healthy presence among FE colleges and private providers – where institutional autonomy means more than it does now, because there are fewer price or number controls; and a sector in which student choice extends beyond subject and location to mode and length of study.’
Statements by Vince Cable, David Willetts and other UK government representatives increasingly reveal an outlook that is based on a re-appraisal of organisational frameworks and cost structures; there is little sign of any focus on pedagogy or scholarship. In many ways this is what is causing the government all its difficulties: it doesn’t have an educational model of education, just a structural one. The same or something similar may be true of the English universities, who seem increasingly fixated on building a price-fixing cartel.
There is a looming crisis of some dimensions in all this, potentially arising from the incoherence of the educational model and the contradictions in the revenue model.
It seems to me that, from the perspective of Scotland or Ireland, we should conclude that while state funding alone is unlikely to provide adequate resources for higher education, the English approach to higher education policy is perhaps not one that should be considered elsewhere.