Posted tagged ‘Steve Smith’

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.

The new and uncertain world of higher education

October 20, 2010

Yesterday morning I was interviewed on an Irish radio station (Newstalk) about the possible reintroduction of tuition fees in Ireland, and various other higher education matters (including academic working hours, presidents’ pay and other delightful issues). Also in the studio was the President of the Union of Students in Ireland, Gary Redmond. Apart from the two interviewers, Ivan Yates and Chris Donoghue, we also heard from listeners who were texting in or leaving messages on Twitter; by all accounts the response was lively.

My fellow guest on the programme, along with a good many of the listeners who wrote or texted or called in, was making the case for the status quo: the maintenance of a university system that was free to students and their families and that was based on the existing understanding of what higher education should look like. The problem with this is that the world in which it is set is gone, and will not re-appear any time soon. The state does not have the money to fund higher education, and even if it increased taxes for this purpose (as some suggest), probably none of the additionally raised money would go to universities and colleges: there are too many other holes to plug. Now that we are beginning to get an idea of how much public money will have to be saved in the coming Budget, we must expect more higher education cuts in Ireland; but we must also be aware that the existing model of higher education will then be unviable. It cannot survive.

A similar story, but with different key facts, is unfolding across the Irish Sea. Today English universities will discover what the government’s spending review is going to do to them. The President of Universities UK, Professor Steve Smith, expects England’s higher education teaching allocation to be slashed and reduced by about 80 per cent, while the research allocation could be cut by perhaps 40 per cent. The gap in the teaching budget will then have to be met from tuition fees, which are expected to rise accordingly. Professor Smith believes that all this will force the closure of a number of universities.

How it will play out in Scotland remains to be seen, as the funding of universities is handled by the Scottish government and will itself be influenced by the availability of public funding for Scotland overall.

As all this drama unfolds, the ability of higher education across these and other countries to make a coherent case to the public will become critical. Right now this game is not being played well. The predominant messages from the sector are pretty much along the lines of ‘oh woe is me’, and if there are thoughts of radical reform and a re-positioning of higher education this is not being articulated for the public. In Ireland it is all complicated by several bad news stories about higher education, which have the tendency to reduce public support yet further.

Higher education institutions and pressure groups now need to approach this differently. There needs to be a vision, setting out how a changed system of higher education can help to transform our economic fortunes and assist in social stability. Messages built just around money and funding are not persuasive, because everyone is now feeling the financial pressures, and special pleading (or what might look like it) is discounted.

For universities, it is time to address the ‘vision thing’, and to explain it coherently. For the governments, it is time to abandon the sheer absurdity that universities can survive with dramatically reduced resources and still be globally competitive. And for the public, it is time to take notice: this is your future, too.