Archive for October 13, 2010

The Browne Stuff

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , on October 13, 2010 by telescoper

I’m basically in purdah this week, shuttling to and fro between Cardiff and Swindon on the business of the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel. However, I couldn’t resist a brief early morning post about yesterday’s news about the report on higher education funding by Lord Browne. I haven’t had time to read the report in full, so won’t comment in detail on it, but a few things did strike me from what I’ve picked up from the media. Perhaps others will add their views through the comments box.

  • For a start it’s quite amusing how far wide of the mark most of the rumour-mongering about the report’s recommendations has been. In fact the proposals are far more radical than had been touted.
  • The suggestion of lifting the cap on fees entirely, and allowing universities to decide how much to charge for tuition, will delight the so-called “elite” universities, but will alarm those (like me) who worry about the impact on students from poorer backgrounds. Most difficult, however, as far as I’m concerned will be the impact on middle-grade universities who won’t know where to pitch themselves in the free market that such a move would create. We know that Oxbridge will be able to get away with charging pretty much whatever they like, and many of the former polytechnics will clearly go for the budget end of the market, but in between there will be tricky decisions to make.
  • The increased fee is to be offset by a cut of a whopping 80% (from £3.5bn to £0.8bn) in the teaching grant to English universities. A cut of this scale may well mean that some courses do not receive any direct contribution from the taxpayer at all (the so-called “unit of resouce”). If this goes ahead it will undoubtedly lead to course closures across the country. Although I would oppose a blanket cut of this scale, I’m not against the idea of withdrawing support from Mickey Mouse courses and concentrating it on important subjects.
  • It seems likely, and indeed there are already signs, that full implementation of the Browne proposals will be politically difficult for the ConDem coalition.  In fact, unless some of the recommendations are diluted, this may well lead to a full-scale revolt. We’ll have to wait and see.
  • Vince Cable has endorsed the report, despite his own party’s previous opposition to raising tuition fees. Any resisual respect I had for him is going down the plughole very rapidly indeed.
  • Finally, I’ll just point out that, even if they are fully implemented, the draconian cuts to English higher education funding are not necessarily going to be replicated here in Wales (or in Scotland or Northern Ireland). The Welsh Assembly has issued a statement on the Browne report, but clearly doesn’t know what to do about it. If they make good decisions now, Welsh universities could prosper by bucking the English trend, but if they get it wrong….

Anyway, that’s all for this am. Got a train to catch!