Posted tagged ‘Browne’

Freeing the universities? Or killing them?

October 14, 2010

It seems likely that the discussion about the real effect of the Browne proposals for higher education in England (Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education) will go on for a while, and will probably get another shot in the arm when the UK government reveals its spending plans shortly. The latter is important because the impact of the recommendations, if implemented, will depend to a large extent on what level of public funding may still be available. At the moment speculation ranges from the idea that current levels of investment will continue and fees will be additional income for institutions, to the more or less complete withdrawal of public subsidy. Browne himself assumes that a fee income of £7,000 per student will represent the status quo, which would suggest a fairly dramatic reduction of public funding.

Reactions to the proposals have, as would be expected, varied depending on who is speaking. The Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has welcomed the report, saying that the recommendations will ‘help to support a sustainable, high-quality university system open to students from all backgrounds’. On the other hand the University and College Union has stated that they are the ‘final nail in the coffin for affordable higher education’. The response of Universities UK is measured, and on the whole positive. The journal Times Higher Education has today published an editorial in which it suggests a somewhat apocalyptic vision:

‘UK higher education is in for a tumultuous and brutal time that could include mergers, aggressive takeovers, private-sector competition, university break-ups and failing institutions. And with sweeping cuts ahead, the sector may find it has no alternative but to accept these huge structural – and philosophical – changes.’

What the reality will be may be too early to say. But it is also clear that while the report addresses England only, other parts of these islands, including Scotland and Ireland, will be fundamentally affected. In Ireland it must be likely that the Browne report will influence thinking on higher education funding in the context of the Hunt report (always assuming that this ever sees the light of day). In Scotland the question must be how public funding of higher education can be sustained at manageable levels in the absence of fees and in the light of dramatic cuts in England. In that context it is remarkable that Sir Andrew Cubie, who ten years ago presided over a report that led to the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland, is now arguing that Scottish graduates ‘should make a contribution’.

One way or another, there are interesting times ahead.