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…