Archive for October 30, 2010

Did HE fall, or was it pushed?

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2010 by telescoper

One of the other scary bits of news to emerge last week concerns proposed changes to the arrangements for tuition fees in English universities. According to the Times Higher, the Minister responsible for universities, David Willetts, has admitted that the cuts to university budgets announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review, will occur before any new money flows into universities from whatever new fee arrangements emerge from the government’s deliberations following the Browne Report.

One of the recommendations of the Browne Report was that central government funding for arts, humanities and social sciences be scrapped entirely. Although I’m a scientist and I do think Science is Vital this is a very bad move, as I think other forms of scholarship and learning are vital too, for a wide range of reasons including cultural ones. It was never clear whether arts & humanities departments would be able to recoup the money lost as a result of cuts to central funding, but now it appears they will have to survive for an indeterminate time without any prospect of extra income to offset the shortfall.

The upshot of all this will be a huge and immediate cut in the budgets of many university departments, a  state of affairs about which Willetts commented only thus:

You have to expect that there will be pressure on universities to save money, and we don’t think they should be exempt from the pursuit of efficiencies.

Can an immediate 40% cut in teaching income be made by efficiency savings? I don’t think so, Mr Willetts. Even making large-scale redundancies won’t help there, as that costs a lot of money up front.

So why is the government pushing through cuts to university funding before ensuring that the new fee arrangements are in place? A variety of answers are possible. One would be incompetence, always a possibility when politicians are involved. However, although this government has tried to rush things through very quickly, I do not believe that this is something that hasn’t been considered very carefully. I think it’s deliberate.  I believe that this government wants some universities to fail, and has found an opportunity to push them over the edge.

It’s not about efficiency savings, it’s about survival of the fattest. Only those places able to dig into their reserves for several years will be able to weather the storm. Some will cope, some won’t. That’s the point.

It’s well known that several universities, most of them post-1992 institutions, have been struggling financially for a considerable time. In the past, special procedures have always been implemented to protect organizations of this type that have been close to insolvency. This government has said that will do things differently, and that universities that go bust will now be allowed to fail. This may involve them closing altogether, or being taken over by private companies. If I were working in a university heavily dependent on income from arts, humanities and social science teaching, I would be extremely nervous about the future. I mean, more nervous than I am anyway, working as a scientist in an institution which is financially sound. And that  is already very nervous indeed.

The other side of this particularly nasty coin, is that more “prestigious” institutions specialising in non-STEM areas, such as the London School of Economics, are already considering the option of going private. If the government gives them no support directly, yet insists – as seems likely – in capping the fee students pay at a figure around £7K per annum as well as strangling them with yards of red tape as HEFCE is wont to do, then why not just withdraw from the system and set fees at whatever level they like? It’s unlikely that an institution with a strong science base will go down this road, as the taxpayer is going to continue supporting STEM subjects, but it seems to me that it would make sense for the LSE to opt out of a system whether the costs of membership exceed the benefits received.

In the longer term, the squeeze is set of continue. According again to the Times Higher, the net revenue from fees will only replace part of the funding withdrawn over the CSR period. It looks like five years of struggle during which many departments may go under. The more you think about it, the worse it looks.

However, perhaps a better question than the one I asked a couple of paragraphs ago is the following. Why is the government intent on slashing the budgets of HE institutions, when it appears to have  let Vodafone off without paying a bill for £6 billion tax?

That amount would have been more than enough to tide the HE sector over until the new fee stream came online…


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The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2010 by telescoper

Another Friday evening, another concert at St David’s Hall. This time it was the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, performing a very mixed programme of pieces (by Rachmaninov, Ravel, Webern and Stravinsky). We’ve been hosting a former PDRA of mine, Chiaki Hikage (now at Princeton) and his wife Mihoko for a week so I invited them along. Chiaki gave a seminar on Friday afternoon at which he endured the usual bombardment of questions from Leonid Grishchuk, so I thought he would need some relaxation afterwards.  I even managed to get front-row seats. It turned out to be a wonderful evening of twentieth century classical music, full of excitement colour and dramatic contrasts.

First up was The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 by Sergei Rachmaninov,  inspired by a painting of the same name by Arnold Böcklin and written around 1909. The rhythms of the opening passage evoke the motion of a boat moving across the sea to the island, from which point the piece develops among a cloud of increasingly dense harmonic layers into a dark atmosphere full of foreboding. It’s a piece that many probably find a bit melodramatic, but I found it both accessible and fascinating.  In fact it struck me that it wouldn’t be out of place as the soundtrack for a horror movie!

After that we had a short break while the stage crew wheeled in the old Steinway for the second piece, the Piano Concerto in G by Maurice Ravel. This is a relatively late piece by Ravel, written around 1930. Its three movements form a sort of sandwich, with the first and third up tempo, jazzy in style and very Gershwinesque. The second, adagio, movement is very different: longer lyrical and tender, although I still detected a jazz influence in the walking bass of the left hand figures during the nocturne passages. The piece was played in sparkling fashion by Jean-Philippe Collard. We were so close that we could hear him humming along as he played. Apparently that bothers some people, but not me. I suppose that’s because so many jazz pianists behave a similar way, as did Glenn Gould.

Anyway, after a glass of wine at the interval it was time for something completely different, the Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, by Anton Webern. This is a suite of short, intense, atonal pieces, sort of orchestral aphorisms, that embrace a huge range of musical ideas. Although  sometimes a bit cryptic, I found these pieces in their own way at least as evocative as the Rachmaninov we heard earlier. The disorientating atonality of the compositions gives them an edgy restlessness, which I found very absorbing. If they were to be used in a film soundtrack it would definitely have to be  a psychological thriller or  film noir.

The last work was probably the most familiar, The Firebird Suite (No. 2, 1919 version) by Igor Stravinsky from the ballet of the same name. This consists of five pieces, again of varied tempo and colour, ending in an exhilirating finale.

Overall it was a hugely enjoyable evening, with all parts of the orchestra tested to the limits and emerging with flying colours. I’d like to put in a special word for the percussionists, though. Perhaps because my Dad used to play the drums I always feel they don’t get the credit they deserve standing there at the back. In particular, during the Webern and Stravinsky works, the percussionists – especially the tympanist – had an awful lot to do, and did it absolutely superbly. However, all parts of the orchestra played their parts equally well under the baton of Lothar Koenigs. This orchestra has had a few problems recently so it was a relief to find them on such good form.

The St David’s Hall was only about two-thirds full, but the audience was thoroughly appreciative – especially for the outstanding performance of the Ravel Piano Concerto. I’m going to get hold of a recording of it by Jean-Philippe Collard as soon as I can!

P.S. Our front row tickets only cost £22 each. Amazing.


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