The cuts culture

We’ve been here before, but this time it’s worse than anything we’ve experienced before. In higher education in the developed world, we are in an era of apparently never-ending cuts. Public money is being stripped out of the system, to be replaced in some jurisdictions by higher tuition fees.

A consequence of this development is that it can create an institutional culture that brings all significant strategic innovation to an end: the culture of efficiencies and savings. A possible example of that is the statement by the Vice-Chancellor of one UK university (which has just suffered public funding cuts of 7 per cent) that the priority now was making the university ‘as lean as possible’ by being ‘smarter about how we manage our operations’. In fact I have no doubt that the university in question is continuing to develop its strategic opportunities, but the risk in a cuts culture is that everything is focused on retrenchment and survival, and not enough energy goes into innovation and renewal.

Every university needs to review constantly how well it is managing its resources, but cutting costs is not enough for sustainability and success. The key objective during such times must be to find new sources of revenue, and to start new initiatives. Without that, any university is on a path to a slow death.

Of course the risk is that the search for revenue may dilute the higher education core mission. Getting this right is not easy. Not all will get it right.

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11 Comments on “The cuts culture”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    This might be a minor point, but I would be much happier if the word ‘culture’ would not be applied to define other terms that are completely alien from it…a great example is ‘drinking culture’…what I’m getting at is that the word culture has become a sort of ‘jack of all trades’, valid in any context and, crucially, validating any context with a patina of acceptability, even when contested, as in this case…I cannot even imagine how cuts can qualify as ‘culture’ (as they are an aberration of it) although I understand perfectly why such expression has gained considerable currency…again this might sound like a useless point in the context of the wider, and more important picture, still I happen to believe that as academics language is one of our battlegrounds, one worth fighting for, and cuts to culture, of course!

    • jfryar Says:

      The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘culture’ as: the attitudes and behaviour characteristic of a particular social group. At the moment the characteristic behaviour of government is to cut public spending on universities. Therefore the term ‘cuts culture’ or ‘culture of cuts’ seems to be applicable.🙂

      • anna notaro Says:

        thanks for the Oxford dictionary definition, I know that the word culture was used with such connotation appropriately in the post, I guess I used such an example instrumentally, i.e. to make a more general point about language, which I truly believe being a metaphorical battleground for opposing cuts and everything else which is thrown upon us right now. I think that reasoning about language is not “just semantics”, i.e. the argument is trivial because it’s simply about word meanings, not about reality. As humans we reason about reality by using categories, and categories are expressed linguistically as words. In this sense, language IS reality and the way we use language has an impact in defining and possibly changing for the better the ‘culture’ of our age…Granted, I traveled far from the topic of the post, sorry..just the way my brain works🙂

        • jfryar Says:

          Anna, I agree to the extent that certain language is used as a short-hand for complex ideas and that often language is used in such a way as to avoid having to really define the argument. A prime example is ‘playing God’ which some people use as an almost self-evident reason against doing something. My comment was designed merely to be flippant since I thought you were over-analysing. Just a teeny weeny bit🙂

          • anna notaro Says:

            guilty as charged Jfrar, I tend to over-analyse, occasionally, thanks for your well humoured comment, can’t promise it won’t happen again though🙂


    • Ah Anna, see jfryar’s comment. The word ‘culture’ does have a wider meaning. You can always lead a campaign to change it…🙂

  2. Daniel Ravenhouse Says:

    “consequence of this development is that it can create an institutional culture that brings all significant strategic innovation to an end: the culture of efficiencies and savings.”

    God forbid that academics in the public employ be asked to work with a little more efficiency when they are spending taxpayer’s money.
    As a scientist, I have worked in both public and private sector laboratories and the difference in culture, attitude and work ethic are remarkable.


    • Actually Daniel, the record of efficiency on the part of university science laboratories is excellent. There was a study on this recently (which I’ll dig out later) that confirms this.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    There is no necessary link between expenditure and innovation. In recent years in Ireland large sums of money were spent on things that were in no real way ‘innovative’ (eg the motorway network; regional air services, most of the HSE). You could even say that having lots of money to splash around stifles innovation.

    Consequently ‘cuts’ don’t of themselves stifle innovation, indeed they may stimulate it, through people having to make better use of existing resources, or to discover new untapped resources (eg previously unrecognised staff expertise and enthusiasm).

    The problem comes when resources are deliberately withheld from innovative activities in order to rprop up non-innovative or ritualistic practices. So, while it might be better to bring in more authentic assessment strategies in teaching, for example, resources are still channeled into expensive examinations processes, as these are resilient to change and may be supported by vested interests.

    A smart approach to innovation acknowledges that an ability to change and adapt is more likely to lead to long-term survival than battening down the hatches and hoping that the ‘good old days’ will return. Even if they do, the world will have changed considerably in the interim!


    • I would agree that in tough times real innovation often comes through. However, this will typically happen in organisations that have the capacity to adjust their ‘business’. It is rare to achieve innovation when the sole business imperative is to cut costs, and when the revenue side is not really addressed.

  4. Al Says:

    Perhaps what is needed along side what you propose is a culture of conservation of potential and selective engagement of that potential.
    Trying to be all things to all people leaves the academy confused in hard times.


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