Posted tagged ‘higher education funding’

Follow the money?

August 25, 2011

Here’s a thing. YouGov-Cambridge recently carried out a survey of 4,000 people exploring British attitudes to higher education (though this may have been English rather than ‘British’).  When respondents were invited to identify the word that most closely described higher education, this is the world cloud that came up.

What should concern us in this is not just the identification of cost as the most important factor, but the fact that ‘knowledge’ and ‘learning’ are amongst the almost invisible terms.

Of course England has its own specific issues in the aftermath of the funding reform there, and some might argue that this would play differently elsewhere. I might have some doubts that it would. Money has become the key point of discussion, and while funding is of course necessary in order that universities can offer excellent programmes and research, it is the means rather than the end.

It is vital that the public debate around higher education is not just seen as money talk. For that to work, of course, the major money concerns of the sector must be addressed. But the universities themselves need to ensure that what they are putting into the public domain is not just all about funding. It is time to expand the debate.

The cuts culture

May 3, 2011

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.

The English way of doing things

April 20, 2011

So there it is, then. The final day came and went for universities in England to declare if they were proposing to charge fees in excess of £6,000, and a number came forward, mostly as we have come to expect declaring they will charge £9,000 (the upper limit permitted by the government). Some made a point of declaring their intentions to do all sorts of good things for access students from some of the proceeds, and some pointed out how hard (apparently) it had been to take this decision.

What happens now is not easy to see.  The British government clearly did not anticipate how its new funding framework would operate, and seems to have been taken by surprise by something almost everyone predicted, and may also be in some denial. The universities in turn have behaved with very little imagination and innovation in setting fees. The declaration by the 1994 Group of universities that these fees are really all in the students’ interests may not seem obvious to every one of those students.

But more than anything else, most of those observing the events in England may be driven to conclude that this looks like a higher education system that has money rather than education at the heart of its strategy. That would be an unfair conclusion, but both the government and the universities have done little to dispel it.

In the meantime, the reason why those of us working in higher education elsewhere in the UK might also be concerned about all this is because what has happened in England may affect our financial stability and moreover may affect our reputation, as international observers don’t always realise that the new funding and fees framework in England does not apply in, say, Scotland. The confusion in England is bad for all of us.

A vision for higher education?

April 6, 2011

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.

How do you price a university degree programme?

March 24, 2011

How do you price a degree programme? Well, ask most English universities and the answer is £9,000. Or rather, the answer may be ‘whatever the government-imposed upper limit for tuition fees is’. In fact, if the British government had followed Lord Browne’s recommendation that there should not be an upper limit, what would universities now be proposing to charge? £15,000? More? Or maybe less?

What is clear so far is that the British government’s strategy of suggesting a benchmark figure of £6,000, and then allowing up to £9,000 in exceptional circumstances, and establishing a whole new bureaucracy to deal with those exceptions (the Office of Fair Access) has not worked as intended at all. All universities to have declared their hand so far, except one, have gone for £9,000. The one exception to date is London Metropolitan University, which is actually going to charge less even than £6,000 for some programmes. Sheffield University, which has not yet made any specific announcement, may be going for less than £9,000, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The latest university to make its no-surprise £9,000 announcement is the University of Manchester, which has managed to declare its intentions in a sombre tone of regret, with its President saying that the decision had been taken ‘very reluctantly’ – which sounds odd, because either this is the right decision or it isn’t.

Some of the speculation doing the rounds is that universities now feel compelled to charge £9,000 as a quality statement: if we charge less, we are saying that our courses are less good. This suggests that pricing a university programme is now being seen as part of brand marketing, rather than determining a genuine cost structure.

Universities are not public service bureaucracies, but equally they are not for-profit commercial entities, and pricing their products on the basis of market expectations is not a good idea. But then again, it may be an inevitable consequence of the new English funding régime.

But it is equally wrong to see pricing primarily as a product of what the taxpayer can currently afford. The proportionate distribution of a sum of money fixed by government – as in Ireland and Scotland – does not reveal the true cost of a university degree. It may be that universities need to be both more forthright but also more transparent in explaining what costs must be met in order to offer programmes that are in line with mission and represent quality. Doing that properly will enhance the ability of the sector to be persuasive in coming to an appropriate funding mechanism. But right now it is hard to avoid the conclusion that both governments and universities are losing their way on this question.

Not quite the apocalypse?

March 23, 2011

Yesterday’s Guardian newspaper carried an interesting article by Universities UK president, Professor Steve Smith. In this he argued that the new post-Browne funding model for English universities would not actually involve a public funding reduction, and that it was untrue that the government would cease to fund the humanities and social sciences. In both cases his point was that while the funding model would change, public money would continue to flow, but just through different channels (mainly through students in receipt of loans and grants).

Leaving aside the slightly irritating tendency for Universities UK to present issues these days as if there were no UK higher education outside of England there are some interesting points in Steve Smith’s analysis – though he will also play into the hands of some critics with his strong references to the introduction of ‘market incentives into the system’. But in every part of the UK the question remains of how an increasingly obvious inability of the taxpayer to meet the cost of higher education can be overcome, and whether the method chosen for England is viable.

Poetic pledge in Scotland

March 14, 2011

Scotland’s national poet published a song in 1794 entitled ‘O My Luve is like a red, red rose’. It was, according to Burns, based on a traditional Scottish song, and in time it was set to a number of different tunes – most recently perhaps in versions sung by Carly Simon and Eva Cassidy. The third stanza of the song as written by Burns runs as follows:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

Now the song has been given new life by Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, who in his speech at the SNP conference used it to make his point about tuition fees:

‘The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students – upfront or back-door.’

If the First Minister is to stay true to the poetic ideals of his source, and if this is part of a declaration of love for higher education, he (or any competing party seeking government) will need to be clear about how Scotland can maintain a world class higher education system on declining resources and increasing demand. Pledging not to introduce fees is the easy bit; saying how the sector will be resourced is, in the end, the more meaningful declaration of love that needs to be spoken.

‘Fixing’ higher education

February 18, 2011

The president of an American liberal arts college, Doug Bennett of Earlham College, has suggested four steps to ‘fix higher education’, published in the Washington Post. These are the four:

1. Fix the Broken Financing of Higher Education.
2. Strengthen the Focus on Assessment of Learning Outcomes.
3. End Intercollegiate Athletics As We Know It.
4. Build a National Open Access Digital Library System.

Three points made by the writer struck me particularly. First, treat higher education as an investment, not as an act of consumption. Secondly, assess funding in terms of how it supports access to higher education. Finally, in looking at learning outcomes, Dr Bennett makes what I regard as a very interesting comment, that higher education ‘is much too dominated by considerations of prestige and much too little dominated by considerations of real value or effectiveness.’

Leaving aside the athletics, which is less of a problem over here – and indeed, sports are making a positive contribution to university life in these islands – it can be seen that our priorities for tackling the crisis in higher education may not be too far off those that would apply in the United States.

Higher education: is excellence the enemy of social mobility?

February 14, 2011

An interesting discusion has got under way in Scotland, promoted in part by The Herald newspaper. The issue is this: can excellence in higher education, of the kind that allows universities to compete with the best in the world, only be achieved at the expense of access for the disadvantaged? Or to put the question in another way, are quality and equality inherently incompatible?

What has prompted this discussion is the current recession and the impact it has had on higher education funding. As university budgets are cut and, as a result, not everything that institutions previously did is now affordable, what are the consequences? Taking the example of Glasgow University, the Herald reports that it is cutting a number of subject areas that may have particularly attracted the disadvantaged, while protecting and developing other areas that allow the university to compete with world leaders in research. The newspaper suggests that this throws up the following question for universities.

‘Is their primary function to be an agent of social justice and mobility, or do they need to concentrate on competing with Oxford and Cambridge and the US Ivy League universities in research and innovation?’

The newspaper also quotes the president of NUS Scotland, who puts the dilemma as follows.

‘I think we should be honest about our priorities. At the end of the day, the point of the university has changed. If you look at when only 5% of the population went, that was about knowledge, discovery, pushing boundaries, people talked about the crème de la crème. That’s not the purpose of universities now – it is about social mobility and people changing their lives.’

If there is a suggestion here that high quality or excellence is a luxury that may not be affordable and therefore should not be a priority  in difficult economic times, then this has other consequences. If a country cannot demonstrate that its universities offer programmes of teaching and research that can compete with the best in the world, it will not be an attractive location for investment, and even those companies that are locally based may look to graduates from elsewhere for the more demanding jobs.

If the participants in the higher education debate in Scotland and Ireland start to suggest that a high volume university sector with lower quality ambitions is an appropriate compromise during difficult times, and that funding or resourcing can properly reflect this, they have not understood how the world is going. It is a dangerous policy direction to suggest, and the price may be paid not just by universities but by the country as a whole. Higher education access should always remain a top priority; but maintaining it at the expense of excellence is making a dangerous and false choice. There really are no cheap options for a modern university system.

Back to the future: ‘efficiency gains’

December 21, 2010

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.