Archive for May 12, 2010

Into the Blue

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on May 12, 2010 by telescoper

So there we are.  Britain has a new government. For the time being. Last night David Cameron became the Prime Minister of a coalition government involving the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties (as I predicted). This is hardly a surprise given the arithmetic; Labour and the LibDems wouldn’t have had enough seats to command a majority anyway. It took five days from the election for the new Prime Minister to take over, much longer than the few hours it normally takes when there is a conclusive result, but nowhere near as long as it takes on the continent where coalition-building involves smaller and more diverse parties. In the UK the three main political parties are all centre-right, at least when it comes to economic policy,  and they share a great deal of common ground, so I never thought there would be much problem with the Conservatives and LibDems coming to a deal, which they have done.

Another prediction I got right was that Gordon Brown would resign as leader of the Labour Party, which he has also done. Who will lead the Labour Party now, and for how long, is anyone’s guess.

My third prediction was that the coalition government would fall within a year and there’ll be another general election. As for that, we’ll have to wait and see. It is, after all, a marriage of convenience. I think it won’t be long before a big row develops and the coalition unravels. There’s a lot of overlap between the two parties, but it’s a long way from the left of the LibDems to the right of the Tories. I give it 6 months to the first vote of confidence, assuming the Queen’s Speech passes.

Now that we have a government once more, the unreal business of electioneering is going to be set aside and all the facts that the media have kept quiet about during the election campaign will start to come out. For example, a story in the Financial Times of 11th May (yesterday), which has clearly been on the spike for the duration of the election campaign, reveals how huge cuts in university funding are set to fall hardest on science departments. Vice-chancellors have been making contingency plans for 25% cuts in recurrent funding for some time now, and there’s an obvious temptation to cut the more expensive subjects first.

I’ve already confessed my annoyance that the main parties connived to keep the details of the deep cuts they were all planning to implement out of the election campaign. Now we’re going to find out the true extent of what’s in store, and it’s too late to change.

Niels Bohr once said “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”, and I have no idea whether I’m being overly pessimistic here, but here are  some of  the things I think will affect my own life  as an astrophysicist working in a British university.

First, it’s now clear that there’s  no chance of a reversal in the fortunes of STFC. There never was much of a chance of that, to be honest. It’s more likely now that  STFC will now face further cuts on top of what it has endured already.  Fundamental science in the UK is in for a very lean time.

Second, university funding – the part that comes directly from central government – will be cut by at least 25%, probably more.  This could be achieved in a number of ways. The unit of resource (the payment made per student by the government to a university) could be cut. The number of students funded could be cut. Students could be charged higher fees or have less generous loan arrangements. These options are by no means exclusive, of course. They might all happen.

University V-Cs will have to make very difficult decisions  where to make savings:  some may tighten budgets across the board; others may shut entire departments to save the rest.

Another issue with university funding, however, is that it is not entirely the preserve of central government.  The Scottish Assembly runs higher education in Scotland, not the Westminster government. The Scottish Funding Council has generally funded universities more generously than HEFCE has in England. It’s also much less likely to implement higher tuition fees. More generally, with only one Scottish Tory MP in Westminster and a Scottish Nationalist-flavoured Assembly government, there’s no way of knowing what will happen in Scotland or, indeed, how much strain will be generated there by an English Tory government very few Scots voted for.

In Wales its a bit different. Here higher education is run by the Welsh Assembly government, which currently comprises a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition. With the Westminster government consisting of an alliance between the other two major parties in Wales we have two levels of administration roughly orthogonal to each other. In principle, the WAG could decide to protect the university system in Wales against the level of cuts being imposed in England, but since we already get a lower unit of resource from HEFCW than HEFCE allocates to English universities, I doubt we’ll be any different in future.

So this is where we’re headed:  fewer science departments with fewer staff with increased teaching loads with less time to do research and with less funding to carry it out and vanishing career opportunities for the scientists they’re supposed to be training.

Still, at least the bankers will get their bonuses.