Did HE fall, or was it pushed?

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…


11 Responses to “Did HE fall, or was it pushed?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephen Curry, Sophie Scott, Dave Sproson, Jonathan Butterworth, Peter Coles and others. Peter Coles said: Did HE fall, or was it pushed?: http://wp.me/pko9D-21x […]

  2. I believe government interests are nearly inseparable from the interests of industry any more. Government is only concerned with people through that tired “trickle down” notion, from industry.

    Arts and Humanities, to this mindset, is unimportant – it doesn’t create graduates who are aligned the best for capitalistic purposes. In fact, arts and humanities can even be considered problematic to capitalistic purposes.

    The only time arts and humanities should be funded is when that funding comes from private interests (which are generally concerned with capitalistic things).

    Having all education funded through corporate means is the best way to insure the status quo remains. Sciences like Astronomy and Cosmology are not so important, as their results are not easily recognizable as profitable. It is, however, an emblem of prestige. But these emblems are less significant in a global economy that is increasingly less concerned with national identities, beyond what they commercially consume or produce.

    What deals with money interests receives the backing of governments. Everything else continues in decline. And this can be solidified by placing all education at the mercy of money interests.

    A great example can be found, even when you look at education already geared toward industry, in the enormous amount of funding science departments at several key US universities receive from oil/energy companies. Of course you can say all sorts of things about academic integrity, but it is not standing up to scrutiny.

    This all is, I think, one of the most important issues of our time. This is obvious, though, isn’t it? I certainly hope that it is.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Hang on, there was a huge expansion of higher education under Major then Labour to 50% of the A-level-taking population. That means teaching to the median ability of the population. That means serious dumbing down of courses. I’d not be sorry to see this reversed even in a time of plenty. If that is the government’s aim then I regret only that (1) they don’t have the honesty to make the case; and (2) they are not doing more to ensure the quality of the courses and institutions that survive.

    Any higher education institution, not just the LSE, is free to go private if it wishes. The University of Buckingham has been around for a while now.

  4. telescoper Says:


    The problem is that this is all being rushed through so quickly that there’s no guarantee that what happens will be that the dumbed-down courses disappear.

    It is not an unreasonable argument to suggest that what we really need is for some of the current “universities” to become Further Education colleges or some other type of vocational training institute, but I don’t think this is the right way to achieve that end.

    Universities in the UK are basically constituted as charities, so they are all in some sense independent of the government. However, they do accept state funding for UK students, for which the government imposes a considerable price in terms of administrative overhead. Buckingham is, as you say, fully independent of the state. It offers 2-year degrees in a limited range of subjects. Perhaps that’s what the future has in store for a number of current universities.

    But what the future has in store for the likes of Thames Valley and Luton, is much less clear..


  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    “It is not an unreasonable argument to suggest that what we really need is for some of the current “universities” to become Further Education colleges or some other type of vocational training institute, but I don’t think this is the right way to achieve that end.”

    Agreed absolutely Peter.


  6. telescoper Says:

    That’s five times this week I’ve indulged in litotes. In my middle age I’m turning into John Major.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    And it is not unbecoming of you. It’s a very academic trait, but my favourite story concerns an undergraduate past whom two dons walked, deep in conversation. The undergraduate overheard the words: “And ninthly…”

  8. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Anton,

    There is no way that the current trends can be portrayed as a rewind to the days of high quality education to a smaller cohort. The expansion of the last 25 years took place under substantial cuts in the funding-per-student; while it may have been government policy to expand participation, the extra students were essential to universities to survive the per-student funding cuts. The new proposals demand another massive cut in funding-per-student, threatening the survival of large segments of HE. If universities were to additionally contract in numbers of students (by choice or by competition) they would surely go to the wall, and any that remained would be a faint shadow of their former selves.

    The rewind is of course impossible, because while previous governments were politically able to argue that the sector ought to be able to teach twice the number of students for the same total funding, no one is going to be able to make the political case that the number of students should be halved without the funding being reduced by at least that factor.



  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    Andrew: OK, if it is not financially possible to rewind 15 years then lets rewind 25 years, the figure you mention. Too bad the government doesn’t have the guts to make the case using the financial arguments you quotte and the ethical ones I quote.

  10. Mr Physicist Says:

    But isnt the problem that we now have essentially a single tier system and everyone goes to “university”? In the past, we would have had polytechnics, colleges of technology, technical colleges and even “night school” where everyone could find their niche and improve themselves. Now, everything and everyone is wrapped up into a one-size-fits-all university education. There is no longer any choice, no diversification and no allowance for the fact that a formal university education is not suitable for everyone. It’s clear to me that this is unworkable for the future. We need the choice and the variety.

    However, it would be wrong if true scholarship in the arts and humanities was made to suffer.

  11. I’ve been wondering wether the timing is part of a political ploy to win the vote on tuition fees in parliament. First take away the money, then when everyone’s screaming the loudest put the vote to parliament. This would put a lot of pressure on the Lib Dems who pledged to scrap tuition fees: vote for higher fees or watch universities going bust. Who knows!?

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