Digest from subtext – on the Uk situation
In advance of MPs’ vote on the proposals later this month, pressure to get the proposals rejected or amended is stepping up. Cardiff Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Willott is widely expected to vote against the proposed rise in tuition fees, and may even resign her government post as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Chris Huhne. There are rumours that Vince Cable has been wobbling on the £9,000 fees cap, and considering lowering it to £7,000.
It has been a long time since we have seen anything like this level of student mobilisation. And, unlike most of the UK’s Vice-Chancellors (see report below), the students and schoolchildren seem to be in step with public opinion: a survey carried out by Ipsos MORI shows strong support for public investment in higher education, with 80 per cent saying that it should either increase or stay the same (http://www.hefce.ac.uk/news/hefce/2010/publicatt.htm).
THE SCIENCES WILL HURT TOO
The outcry against the planned cut in government funding of university teaching has focused on the potential impact on the arts, humanities and social sciences. There is certainly a widespread sense that the coalition government is continuing the prioritisation of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects that was supported by Peter Mandelson in his Higher Ambitions report, on the grounds that they are of greater strategic importance to the economy. But the reality is more complex, and suggests that we should be wary of invoking any us-and-them language between C. P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’.
What Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts promised to protect is not the Block Grant funding for STEM teaching per se but merely the extra cost of teaching those subjects over those in the arts and social sciences (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11627843). Readers may be aware that subjects are currently divided into four price groups or bands, starting with the most expensive ones:
A Clinical stages of medicine etc (4)
B Laboratory-based subjects (1.7)
C Subjects with a ‘studio, laboratory or fieldwork element’ (1.3)
D All other subjects (1)
(The numbers after each category represent the current ‘cost weight’ – so for example the HEFCE funding for each band A student currently brings in four times as much as that for a band D student.) It is expected that subjects in Bands C and D will have their entire teaching grant removed, and that funding for
subjects in bands A and B will continue, but at amounts reduced by approximately the amount currently received by band C, to make it possible to retain more-or-less equal fees across the different subjects without affecting science teaching.
So while the ‘hit’ suffered by FASS and LUMS will be proportionally larger, in absolute terms the cut in teaching grant per student is likely to be the much same across all faculties. The worry that many HE institutions that offer predominantly band C and D subjects will be particularly hard-hit by the proposed new arrangements is arguably more to do with their ability to demand higher fees – especially if students expect to see higher education more as an investment on which they expect a return – than any differential treatment of disciplines per se.
In the area of research funding the runes are harder to read. Research Council funding will not be cut, remaining flat over the next few years – and there is no sign, yet, that the proportion spent by the different councils will change.
But many areas of science depend crucially on high levels of capital spend, and capital allocations are being drastically cut, particularly affecting the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). So ‘big science’ may suffer greatly. What is likely to be better supported will be any subjects that promise application – and preferably ones that are less expensive – which could include design, management and areas of the social sciences as much as medicine, science and technology.
UNIVERSITY FUNDING: THE BUDGET AND BROWNE – PART III: FOLLOWING OUR LEADERS
While we’re on the subject of divide and rule, subtext has been taking a look at how the various university Vice-Chancellors across the UK have been responding to the Browne Review of university funding.
The VCs have generally been responding through their university ‘mission groupings’, such as the 1994 Group. In one of the most interesting breaking of ranks from that pattern, Sir Peter Scott (VC of Kingston University) dismisses these groups as ‘victim-support groups for anxious vice-chancellors, where they could whinge safely in private about the government, the trade unions – and, of course, the other clubs with their snobs and upstarts’. Scott suggests that no individual university has as a body agreed to join any of the groupings – and that that the reliance on these ‘VC’s clubs’ has allowed the government to play them off against each other, meaning that they have offered at best weak resistance and at worst active collaboration with cuts which have been far higher in higher education than in any other area of the public sector (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/22/tuition-fees-higher-education).
There are currently four such groupings, which, at risk of perpetuating the elitist self-descriptions of the ‘top’ layers, can be arranged in order as follows:
- The Russell Group – 20 ‘research-intensive’, generally older universities, with an emphasis on medical schools, science and technology, including of course Oxford and Cambridge
- The 1994 group – 19 universities, a mixture of 1960s ‘plate-glass’ universities and older institutions, but also describing themselves as ’research-intensive’
- The University Alliance – 22 formerly unaligned universities, a mixture of pre- and post-1992 institutions, describing themselves as major, ’business-focussed’ universities oriented towards graduate employment (what Scott calls the ‘upwardly mobile’).
- million+ – 27 post-1992 universities and university colleges (Scott’s ‘urban grit’).
The official statements of these groups on the cuts follow a predictable gradient as one moves ‘up’ or ‘down’ the list. However, whether it’s the University Alliance and million+ that can be seen as breaking ranks by criticising the government proposals, or the Russell and 1994 Groups by supporting them, tends (depressingly) to depend on where one is positioned in the layer cake.
Most critical has been the million+ group. In their 3 Nov press release they argued that ‘the Government appears to believe that higher education is only of value to the individual and not to society and the economy. This is not an approach which is being followed in any of the UK’s competitor countries. The big risk is that participation and social mobility will be damaged.’
Particularly in their more recent announcements, they have also argued that the government’s modelling of impact is wrong, in that the cost to students of the debt, and to the government of writing off the interest before students earn over threshold, will be significantly higher than predicted, jeopardising the promised cost-savings (http://www.millionplus.ac.uk/press/coalition-should-think-again-on-university-fees).
Nine of the million+ VC’s (those of Central Lancashire, Leeds Metropolitan, Kingston, Wolverhampton, Middlesex, East London, Southampton Solent, Greenwich and Bedfordshire) went further, signing a letter published in the Guardian on 10 Nov, repeating many of these arguments and suggesting that MPs should ‘vote for additional funding for teaching, and for the costs of teaching a wider range of students to be fully covered’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/10/higher-education-universities-fees-cuts.
The most outspoken of these have been Peter Scott (Kingston – mentioned above), Malcolm McVicar (UCLAN) and Tessa Blackstone (Greenwich). McVicar has criticised Browne as elitist and flawed in its picking out of the STEM subjects as particularly necessary for a modern economy and in its acceptance of lower student numbers, and has castigated other VCs for their ‘rush to welcome much higher student fees and the acceptance of massive cuts in public investment’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/03/browne-review-elitist-flawed.
Blackstone, a former Labour education minister, appeared on Radio 4′s Today programme arguing that the proposals should be replaced by a graduate tax and a small fee rise.
Out on a rather different limb is Terence Kealey, the rather, ahem, ‘eccentric’ Vice-Chancellor of the private University of Buckingham. Kealey criticises the government’s plans – not for being too market-based but as not market-based enough, and as a disguise for greater state intervention into HEIs. He argues that the proposed merger of all the higher education institutions into a single Higher Education Council will concentrate political power over universities, for example making it a condition for them to receive state funding that they ‘scour inner-city estates’ for more working-class students, and ‘require all new academics with teaching responsibilities to undertake a teaching-training qualification accredited by the HE Academy’ (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/higher/terence-kealey-leave-our-funding-alone-lord-browne-2143040.html).
The University Alliance group have also criticised the proposals, but their rather muted complaining looks like bluster or at best an awkward compromise, particularly as each of their press releases ends with the boilerplate statement that ‘Alliance universities are strong and popular institutions and will of course engage with any new system of higher education funding … ‘.
The 1994 group (chair and spokesperson, Paul Wellings) and the Russell Group have both been solidly supportive of the raised fees. Back in January, the Russell Group’s Chair, Michael Arthur (Leeds), and its Director General, Wendy Piatt, argued forcefully against impending cuts in a front-page article in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jan/11/universities-face-meltdown-britain-suffer).
But once it became clear that the Browne Review might provide a mechanism for more than filling that gap, any criticism of the cuts became highly muted, in case the government’s trajectory was diverted. Some of the Russell Group universities were thought to have been exploring the possibility of going private, and the raising of the cap to £9,000 may have been a sop to try to keep them in the public sector. But the Group are understood to regard the £9,000 merely as stage one of a two-stage process leading to even higher fees, and already to be actively lobbying for the fee cap to be raised further. You have been warned.
The Campaign for the Public University have been encouraging people to write to Russell Group VCs demanding that they explain their complicity with the cuts. But some individual Russell-Group VCs have made some nuanced and interesting statements about the university funding crisis and the idea of the university, which is more than can be said for the 1994 Group VCs.
Keith Burnett (Sheffield) blogged perceptively about the subtle damage to the culture of the university that might be wrought by judging some disciplines to be more valuable than others and by adopting a narrow sense of what HE is for.
He considered how ‘gutted’ he would feel if his subject, physics, ‘had been identified as fundamentally unimportant to the UK, or at least unworthy of its investment, in the way that many of our colleagues’ subjects have been.’ He defended the idea of a university ‘where knowledge is multi-faceted, not divided by impermeable walls’, and particularly mentions the value of the arts and humanities: ‘One of our most powerful resources as a country, and as a University, is our cultural insight, our deep questioning of our own society and ideas – perhaps we have never needed that analysis more as we consider how best to go forward’ (http://www.shef.ac.uk/vc/blog.html).
It was another Russell Group VC, Nigel Thrift (Warwick), who wrote a prescient article in Times Higher Education back in March. He argued that universities were far too close to government, suggesting that instead ‘we need to start saying “no”‘. Thrift called for the establishment of a commission that would defend the values of the university against the tendency to reduce everything to the ‘bottom line’. His own preferred vision for the higher education sector was more like that of the USA, with a range of universities, both public and private, with greater diversity of form and function. He suggested that such a system would be less hierarchical and (perhaps naively) more likely to be characterised by ‘parity of esteem’. But achieving any common vision, he argued, would require universities to cooperate as a whole, overcoming their tendencies to divide between the different mission groups. Without renewed cooperation and a dramatic revisioning, he suggested, ‘each group will seek its own salvation, gradually producing a more and more Balkanised landscape’ (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=410613§ioncode=26).
Thrift’s warnings seem to have been ignored, his suggestions dismissed, and his direst predictions are now coming true. We have been let down badly by our Vice-Chancellors – by their neglect of the opinions and values of their own university communities, by their seduction by ‘mission groupings’, and by their inability to work together in the interests of higher education as a whole. And even Thrift seems now to have ducked back below the parapet, with his public statements since the publication of the Browne Review and the Comprehensive Spending Review showing little more than passive acceptance of the course on which the government seems to be headed.