Posted tagged ‘UK’

Higher education in a recession: cut it or grow it?

February 2, 2010

Two news items yesterday indicate how it is possible for governments to take very different views as to how higher education should be handled in a recession. In Washington US President Barack Obama unveiled his administration’s $3.8 trillion budget proposals, and amongst these was a7.8 per cent increase for education. The thinking behind that was explained by Education Secretary Arne Duncan:

‘We have to educate our way to a better economy. This is one area where the president is significantly increasing resources because he is convinced this is a long-term answer to the economic challenges that face our country.’

Part of the purpose of the budget increase is, according to the Obama administration, to make the United States ‘the world leader in college graduations by 2020’. In addition, there is a significant increase (to the tune of $3.7 billion) in research funding.

Meanwhile on the same day, England’s universities received the first official information from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) about next year’s allocations to higher education, and here there is a very different story. Funding for teaching is being reduced by 1.5 per cent, and the capital building programme by 15 per cent.  Research funding is being maintained at current levels.

Of course different countries have varying levels of capacity to fund budget items, no matter how important. The United States has the ability to carry and to increase deficits (though not without consequences) in a way that, say, Ireland does not. But all countries are able to set priorities and to discriminate on policy grounds between different aspects of government expenditure. In America a strong focus has been placed on education and it is recognised as a key driver of economic recovery. Appropriate use of money allocated and close monitoring of the effectiveness of expenditure are of course important accompaniments to budget increases But having the capacity to educate the brightest minds and to attract the greatest talent to the country are invaluable supports during a time of economic crisis.


Two year degrees?

December 28, 2009

In a recent post here I drew attention to the annual ‘grant letter’ which the UK’s Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Lord Mandelson, had sent to the English founding council. But apart from the issue of university funding that the letter addressed, there was also one other matter raised by Peter Mandelson in passing which has attracted a lot of attention. Here’s what he said:

‘We want to see more programmes that are taken flexibly and part-time and that a learner can access with ease alongside their other commitments. We also wish to see more programmes, such as foundation and fast-track degrees, that can be completed full-time in two years.’ (para. 4)

It would be fair to say that this didn’t go down very well, with almost any audience. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU, the academics’ trade union), said:

‘Reading between the lines here it sounds like a two-tier university system where the privileged few have the pick of the university park and everyone else has to make do with what they can afford.’

Media comment was also almost universally hostile, as in this example.

In fairness to Peter Mandelson, I’m not wholly sure that he said what has been attributed to him by some of the critics. He did (as seen in the quote above) refer to two-year programmes, but I don’t see the immediate evidence that he was holding this up as the general model to be applied. Rather, he seems to have been concerned with the need to have structured programmes that are accessible to those who are not traditional university students. For all that, he said what he said, and he certainly does seem to be contemplating some two-year courses. And if that is so, it is indeed necessary to examine where such courses would fit into both the Bologna framework and, more generally, our understanding of the pedagogy underlying university degrees. The problem is that the rather high volume of the responses may make a dispassionately analytical discussion with the Secretary of State difficult.

This is also an important topic for us in Ireland, and one that should be addressed in the higher education strategic review now under way, and in the resulting discussion. Right now there are three-year and four-year undergraduate programmes in Ireland, and some niche ones that have other structures. It is time to reach an agreement on what educational aims we expect to see satisfied in degree programmes and how the total period of study affects that.

UK universities facing cuts

December 23, 2009

It was always clear that the recent experience of Irish universities of significant cuts in the light of the economic downturn was also going to be a feature of British higher education funding. Yesterday the UK’s Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Lord Mandelson (whose remit covers higher education), wrote the annual ‘grant letter‘, which is a letter by the Secretary of State to the English funding council (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are handled locally) indicating what funds will be available to the sector. This year the main emphasis is on efficiency gains and cuts. As is sometimes the case when politicians address the sector, the main message is one of expecting the probably unachievable: Lord Mandelson is here found suggesting ‘greater efficiency, improved collaboration and bearing down on costs’, all to be done with ‘a commitment to protect quality and access’. Well, it is Christmas.

The new cut to budgets contained in the letter amounts to £135 million. Some of the money will be taken from capital budgets, so that the cut to teaching allocations will be £51 million. Taking the overall teaching budget of England, this is a cut of around 1 per cent. I suppose one might say, from an Irish perspective, that this isn’t all that much – after all, we have just been cut by 4 per cent, on top of cuts in the previous year. Nevertheless, the cut, along with Lord Mandelson’s reflections on how universities need to develop their strategies and his intention to protect but ‘concentrate’ research funding, is another instance of the pressures currently being applied that are necessarily going to have to lead to a re-assessment of what model of higher education we can now pursue that will leave universities globally competitive.

It is clear that governments, and those advising them on education strategy, no longer consider the traditional university model to be desirable or viable. On the whole the response to this from the universities in these countries has not presented a strong case for an alternative strategy likely to be seen as realistic by the politicians. This is now an urgent priority. I propose to set out some of the issues in a series of posts on this blog early in the New Year.

A concordat for higher education?

August 6, 2009

The British Parliament’s Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee recently produced a report which, at least in some respects, makes for interesting reading. The report is the outcome of an inquiry by the committee into the student experience at British universities, set against practice in other countries. However, it is more broadly based than that objective might lead one to expect, and in fact the committee touch in virtually every aspect of higher education and ask a number of questions. The committee took evidence from a huge array of stakeholders, and the report attempts to distil the answers, and the reactions to these answers, into a coherent set of observations and recommendations. I am not sure whether this has worked – in the sense that I don’t think this amounts to a document that could be used as a reference work for higher education. But it does show how the system looks when one has set it against a set of data and anecdotal observations; and although you mightn’t think so, that has some value. I may come back to aspects of it over time.

For today, I want to focus on one set of observations, on institutional autonomy. In fact, the committee start this section (para. 237) by saying that they would like to look at the related topic of academic freedom, but would leave that for another time, and end it by suggesting that the funding council, the higher education sector and student bodies should draw up what they call a ‘concordat’ (i.e. a formal agreement), which would have the purpose of ‘defining those areas over which universities have autonomy, including a definition of academic freedom and, on the other side, those areas where the Government, acting on behalf of the taxpayer, can reasonably and legitimately lay down requirements or intervene.’

The committee had come to the view that institutional ‘autonomy’ had become hard to identify because everyone has a different understanding of what it might mean and what effect it should have. This is equally true in Ireland, and in fact it may all become more complex still as regulatory pressures increase and budgets reduce (but come with ever more strings attached). Right now we have an ongoing strategic review of higher education, and it might be appropriate for the group addressing this review to consider a similar approach, so that the basis on which universities operate and the extent to which they can decide their own affairs or have them determined by regulation can be clarified. Continuing in the current mists of ambiguity is almost certainly not a good idea.

Research assessment

December 18, 2008

Today is December 18th, and the UK Research Assessment Exercise results are published. The RAE website is here, and the full results cane be read or downloaded here. I have had a rather cursory glance at these, and there appear to be some surprising results, with some older universities doing less well than expected. The Northern Ireland universities, as far as I can see, have at least in some subjects fared well. I shall try to present a more informed view of the results when I have studied them more closely.

The results are being presented somewhat differently from before, and it is now possible to see in much more detail how units have performed within their subject areas, and in particular what the distribution of staff performance is within specific subject areas.

The debate will now begin again, I imagine, as to how useful this whole exercise is, and the extent to which it does actually promote quality. Here in DCU, we have over the past year or so conducted our own research assessment, and we expect to give some results from that before long. I expect that, at some point, there will be a sector-wide exercise of this nature in Ireland; and when that happens, assuming it does, I hope we avoid some of the mistakes which, in my opinion, were made in the UK.