Tag Archives: whoseuniversity

Whose university? why? pt 3

Ahead of the Browne Review, and the associated storm of nonsense in the national press, I’ve been getting very interested in the nature of the university, and how this has changed over time. With the fees issue, the influx of private institutions into the UK and cuts to research funding, we are going to be living through some great upheavals. I think it is important to show that the virtual stasis within the system between 1992 and 2004, and from 2004 onwards, has been an anomaly, and that change is embedded into the DNA of the institutions we work for. This is part 3 of a short series of blog posts: this post focuses the future, the previous post was on present day funding pressures, the first focused on the history of state funding for the university system.  

These are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license.

As I write, we are mere hours away from the launch of the Browne Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance and the first whir of of the fearful machine that will change the face of higher learning.

 

This is the same machine that has turned our private sector into the behemoth that we placate with government bailouts and job cuts, and protect or mollify with new laws and new crimes. The machine that turned friendship and trust – ideas and beauty – into one man getting richer as other toil.

 

And this is it. We’ve reached the end of the profit margin. We can patch up the business models, flutter life into the stock certificates, pump the corpse of commerce with tainted coins and bills clawed from the hands of the exploited masses. We’ve no oil, no energy, no growth. The crops are dying, the seas are dying. The stories that we tell ourselves – the American dream, the myth of the self-made man, the benevolence of the market, the meritocracy, the idea of perpetual growth – they never were true, and we always knew it. But now even the leaders can only parody the mechanisms of belief.

 

 

If we have a last hope – is it too late to talk about hope? – it is our own ability to understand, to create, to synthesise and to draw together. The first academic was a man drawing patterns in the sand. And we all did it, we drew patterns, connections, network diagrams… we were nodes in the lattice of learning, explaining as we created, weaving the strands together.

 

And we are the only ones that truly understand this machine that is coming for us. In many ways we built it.

 

There are contradictions, flaws, logical errors. Who better than we to point these out? Even in the past week we’ve seen the hot ice and wondrous strange snow of cuts that cost money, price rises that bring in nothing, market fundamentalism that leads to Sir Green’s call for the Government to exploit and twist the so-called natural and immutable market forces to benefit itself.

 

In a world where jobs and income are in danger we are urged to take on more debt.

 

In two major reports, days apart, we are called upon to collaborate and compete, monopolise and diversify, act local and buy global. There’s no rationale here… they’re as scared as we are.

 

More so, because they are cowering not because of what they are about to destroy or what is already falling around their ears, but because they know that we can and will hold their ideas to account and that those ideas will be found lacking.
  • Lacking in a logical sense, incoherent, self-contradictory, divorced from the very cause and effect that they claim we need to “get real” and understand.
  •  
  • And lacking in a spiritual sense, without a dream, a vision, an inspiration, a sense of any purpose beyond one number rising as another falls. They show us a balance sheet, we show them the stars… and the gods, and the artists, and the dreamers dreaming.
We hold the very secrets of the universe in the University, a treasure beyond value, and we don’t sell them, we share them.

 

Our Arcadian islands have gotten tarnished over the years. Our own “big society” of scholars and seekers of truth has taken in those who can advise us how to play their game (as if we couldn’t if we wanted to). We have our own balance sheets now too, our own income/outgoings, shortfalls and profits. We even mutilate ourselves to fit their image – a department lost here, a lab there, a few thousand books and journals tipped into the great stack. Good people held back because they care more about truth than money and the corporate way.

 

The last thing we want is to claim that we can play that squalid game better. Our argument is that the game is wrong, the whole game, and if anyone can find another one it’s us. Think of all the things we do that isn’t make money… we invent, we reappraise, we reuse; we expose young people to worlds and ideas they never knew existed. We’re a community, and we are part of other communities. And we dream, the last dreamers in a world that has forgotten how. But they’ll be needing us, if not now then soon.

 

Departments that close, institutions that fold. They won’t come back. They say that we shouldn’t hand our children debt, but let’s at least have something to hand on that we are proud of. Or the stories we’ll be telling them of learning for all and the life of the mind will be of a land as far away from their daily experiences as fairytales. And I want some new stories, some better stories, to tell my son.

 

This post owes a debt to some of the amazing writing around the Dark Mountain project, and to Joss Winn, Richard Hall, Dave White, Adam Cooper, Rob Pearce, Lou McGill, Brian Lamb, Amber Thomas and everyone else I’ve agreed and disagreed with over the past few months.

 

This is the end of a series, and as once again I’m reminded by some it’s not my job to look at the big pictures, it might end up being the end of my contributions to these conversations. I hope not though, but anyway thank you all for the words of encouragement and support. And let’s hope I’m back later this week to go over Browne in more depth.

 

 

Whose University? Why? pt2: the cuts and the fees

Ahead of the Browne Review, and the associated storm of nonsense in the national press, I’ve been getting very interested in the nature of the university, and how this has changed over time. With the fees issue, the influx of private institutions into the UK and cuts to research funding, we are going to be living through some great upheavals. I think it is important to show that the virtual stasis within the system between 1992 and 2004, and from 2004 onwards, has been an anomaly, and that change is embedded into the DNA of the institutions we work for. This is part 2 of a short series of blog posts: this post focuses on present day funding pressures, the first focused on the history of state funding for the university system and the next will focus on the future. 

These are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. Full disclosure: I previously have worked for HEFCE, but have prepared this post using only information that is publicly available. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license.

 

So where are we today?

 

The total income of the UK Higher Education Sector is £23,440m. Direct funding council funding for UK institutions (taking into account teaching [64%], research [20%] and special funding allocations [16%]) currently constitutes 36% (£8,508m) of this income. 19% of UK Higher Education Funding comes from other government sources (mainly the research councils), 8% from standardised student “top-up” fees. The remaining 37% comes primarily from other income associated with students (including international student fees, profits on university halls of residence). Non-government funded research (on behalf of charities and the private sector), comes to only 7%, only a little over the 6% gained from residential and catering profits (source, HEFCE 2010, from 2008-9 HESA figures).

 

Two things are notable about these figures.

 

The first is that research is not especially profitable if you take a short term view of it. The vast majority of research is paid for by the government using funding that would probably otherwise make its way into the core allocation, and factoring in that some universities do an awful lot of non-government research, the average institution is probably more profitable as a hotel than a commercial research centre. Given the rumoured oncoming research funding cuts, even more so.

 

The second is that charging a student £3,000-odd pounds a year per student is not yielding much in the way of additional income. Fees are payable starting at the point of completion of each year with the Student Loan Company paying the fees and then reclaiming from graduates over their working lives. All this does is move (a small amount) of the long-term cost of higher education from public taxation to private debt. And in the short-term, the fees are paid by the SLC and guaranteed by the Government, so for at least the first three years it makes pretty much no difference at all to the taxpayer whether fees are £0, £3000, £7000 or whatever else. Incidentally, why are we trusting an ex-BP person to apply a cap correctly?

 

This is an important point and is worth bearing when ever you hear a politician talking about cutting costs and universal education being unaffordable. The government will start getting a tiny trickle of these fat fees back in round about 2014-15, by which time that nice Mr Osborne will have cleared the deficit and the sun will always be shining. Fee increases have NOTHING to do with clearing government deficit and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.

 

But – oh yeah – the cuts. One rumour I’ve heard is of all funding for bands C and D cut, with bands A and B cut by an equivalent amount. This (apparently) will be a 40%-ish cut. For many readers, the previous sentence will be nonsense, so allow me to explain.

 

For the rest of you who don’t actually care, here’s a link to a picture of Thora Birch in Ghostworld with a CC-BY-ND license. 
Or if you’re super keen, here’s HEFCE explaining the whole system in more detail.
See you in 5.

 

HEFCE allocates funds on a weighed model, based on a complicated set of observations called TRAC-T which tells them pretty much what it costs to do any kind of teaching in a UK university. They then simplify this into four bands and apply a weighting to each band, something like this:

 

Band A (Clinical Sciences) = standard unit of resource x4
Band B (Other lab-based sciences, engineering and technology) = standard unit of resource x1.7
Band C (Other lab, studio or fieldwork subjects) = standard unit of resource x1.3
Band D (everything else) = standard unit of resource x1

 

Then they add on some further weightings for being in or near London and some non-traditional modes of study, and note that some subjects are in multiple bands (eg Psychology) which causes no end of trouble. But the question you are probably wondering is what is the “standard unit of resource”. Well, to figure that out you take the number of students in the system (weighted as above) and then divide the total available teaching funding by that. This year, the standard unit of resource happens to be is £3947. (and the £3225 of fees “tops up” this figure to something approaching a nominal total cost of tuition per year, which must be about £7172… hmmm…)

 

Right, everyone back together at this point, please. Let me start by apologising for not doing this next bit in as cool a way as Tony Hirst would.

 

So, if we take the cuts rumours as fact, and lose HEFCE funding for band C and D entirely, and cut bands A and B by the standard unit of resource, we look like this.

 

Band A (Clinical Sciences) = standard unit of resource x3
Band B (Other lab-based sciences, engineering and technology) = standard unit of resource = x0.7
Band C (Other lab, studio or fieldwork subjects) = standard unit of resource x0
Band D (everything else) = standard unit of resource x0

 

Assuming that the nominal standard unit of resource is kept the same (£3947), we get:

 

A: current system = £15896, would be £11841
B: current system = £6710, would be £2763
C: current system =  £5131, would be £0
D: current system = £3947, would be £0.

 

Looking at the system as a whole in 2008-9 combined (which are figures that have handily and rather arbitrarily have been published by HEFCE) we can get a rough understanding of the effects this would have on the system as a whole. (note that this is really dodgy and I’m ignoring all the complicated stuff that is in more than one band, London weighting, other weighing… so this is indicative rather than exact).

 

 

So a 40% teaching funding cut by cutting Band C and D and reducing A and B by a similar amount would actually come to at least a 78% cut to core teaching funding! Clearly someone else out there has data standards as low as mine, I just hope that it isn’t someone advising David Willetts and Lord Browne.

 

Now from above, we know that any higher fees coming in will make no difference to state spending on HE for at least 4 years, we can make one of two assumptions depending on our current state of optimism given the assumed truth of the rumours..

1. These cuts will be one great big short sharp shock, and we’ll lose any number of institutions, with the government hoping that any extraneous costs in legal fees, redundancy etc will be more than offset by the increased savings. Carnage, basically.

2. These cuts will be tapered, to mesh with the rising fee take. Given that we’ve calculated the total unit of resource is about £7000 anyway, we wouldn’t see any overall loss in resource assuming that we see the same number of students overall. As that last clause is clearly not going to happen we will still see a certain amount of carnage, but not as much as in option 1.

And if we had the kind of government who hadn’t recently rushed in to quango cuts and child benefit cuts without weighing up all the implications, I’d be confidently if painfully predicting option 2.

 

But I’m going to end on an upbeat note. Option 3. These rumours are clearly fag-packet policy from within the Browne Review. The figures don’t add up, the fee cap raise doesn’t have the effect that is expected, and above all, the country gains £3 from every £1 it invests in Higher Education. Browne releases the report and plays the big bad capitalist, the Tories harrumph and nod, then make a big show of being beaten down to a lower cut and a lower rise in fees by the Lib Dems, those plucky defenders of student finance.

 

Academia breathes a sigh of relief, but really the bus is already leaving

 

Please do comment to correct any errors of fact or calculation, I will be happy to amend the post and will attribute if you wish.

Whose university, and why? pt1.

Ahead of the Browne Review, and the associated storm of nonsense in the national press, I’ve been getting very interested in the nature of the university, and how this has changed over time. With the fees issue, the influx of private institutions into the UK and cuts to research funding, we are going to be living through some great upheavals. I think it is important to show that the virtual stasis within the system between 1992 and 2004, and from 2004 onwards, has been an anomaly, and that change is embedded into the DNA of the institutions we work for. This is part 1 of  a short series of blog posts: this post focuses on the history, and the next will focus on the present day pressures.

These are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license.
If you asked an average, informed, observer (say an informed and observant Vice Chancellor, for instance) “What is a university” I imagine you’d get something like the following: 

Universities (and colleges) are supported by public funds to do research. They teach students, at undergraduate and post-graduate level, with a combination of state funding and student contributions. They work (at least partially) to meet the needs of local and national employers, and of professional bodies. And they administrate themselves, via academic managers with professional managerial support. (this isn’t a real quote, but it sounds about right)
This has all only really been the case since 1919, with the establishment of two bodies – the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which provided state research funding for what we now call STEM subjects, and the University Grants Committee, propping up an ailing higher education infrastructure after the First World War. Keen ironists will be delighted to note that both of these bodies and their underlying state-interventionist principles were established by a Conservative/Liberal coalition government. One Sir William McCormick was the first chair of both the DSIR and the UGC.

Prior to this, university funding by the state was piecemeal and arbitrary, with the primary policy actors being local authorities (in the establishment of Civic universities such as Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester) and central government in establishing the Willetsian degree-awarding colossus that is the University of London (essentially a self-supporting 1836 fudge by the Privy Council so they didn’t have to grant powers to multiple provincial universities that they didn’t feel would be sustainable). Despite this, institutions continued much as they had in the middle ages, with the idea of the university famously described by the newly-Blesséd John Henry Newman in 1850:

“The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already. You must imitate the student in French or German, who is not content with his grammar, but goes to Paris or Dresden: you must take example from the young artist, who aspires to visit the great Masters in Florence and in Rome. Till we have discovered some intellectual daguerreotype, which takes off the course of thought, and the form, lineaments, and features of truth, as completely and minutely as the optical instrument reproduces the sensible object, we must come to the teachers of wisdom to learn wisdom, we must repair to the fountain, and drink there. Portions of it may go from thence to the ends of the earth by means of books; but the fullness is in one place alone. It is in such assemblages and congregations of intellect that books themselves, the masterpieces of human genius, are written, or at least originated.”

Of course, there was no need for University research funding in those early days. Newman again:

“The nature of the case and the history of philosophy combine to recommend to us this division of intellectual labour between Academies and Universities. To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person. He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new.”

Public funding for research (apart from a few special cases where specific non-university research institutes such as the Royal Society and the Royal Observatory were supported by the Crown and commissioned largely private individuals) is largely a 20th century invention – indeed you can pin the date down a rough date shortly after the first world war, and the above mentioned Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. But even here, the Department was more likely to commission and fund independent research bodies such as the National Physical Laboratory and the Building Research Establishment, occasionally bringing in University staff to work with them.

Two notable non-recipients of UGC (and DSIR) cash were the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, both of whom felt that their autonomy would be compromised by accepting state funding. But even these two, enviously and nervously eyeing the investment in laboratory equipment facilitated by grants to other institutions, petitioned the UGC to support them in 1922. 

UGC grants mainly covered the administrative and structural costs of a University, with teaching supported by learners and their sponsors. The availability of (near) universal public funding for teaching in Higher Education is a post second-world war invention, with a growth in local education authority funding for university fees from the mid ’40s onwards. A national scheme of student grants in the early ’60s after the recommendation of the Anderson Committee and the legislation of the 1962 Education Act built on the narrow availability of private and Board of Education scholarships. The 1962 act enshrined the right of all school leaves to local education maintenance grants in respect of their higher-level studies, with the exception of trainee teachers and mature students, both of which who were supported by the Board of Education. These interventions led to a rapid rise in the number of students who were able to take advantage of university provision.

Only with the passage of the Higher Education Act in 2004 did the onus for the payment of (at least some) of the cost of their university education (in the form of what at the time was called “top-up fees”) return to the learner in question.

But enough of these modern ideas of funding teaching and research! The position of the employer needs has become more prominent since the Dearing report in 1997 but it’s been there since medieval times, with pretty much a 10-20 year cycle of interest through the 20th century. Indeed, giving life to the old Einstein maxim that the definition of madness is continuing to do the same thing and expecting different outcome, successive movements and eventually governments have created new kinds of UK universities, to better meet the needs of employers:
  • The “redbrick” and “civic” universities, largely established by groups of industrialist benefactors, placed particular emphasis on meeting the technological demands of the fast-changing Victorian era.
  • The “Robbins Report”, or “plate-glass”, universities, where  all Colleges of Advanced Technology (originally organised to meet the industrial and commercial needs in a given locality) gained degree awarding powers
  • The “New”, or “post 92″ universities, where polytechnics and HE Colleges already embedded in local employment markets gained degree awarding powers.
  • The Open University specifically allowed students to study whilst in full time employment.
  • And those readers sitting in “ancient” universities may want to consider the links between their seat of learning and the Church, the principal employer of university graduates for many centuries.

And as for the academic leadership of Universities, just to give one example the University of Cambridge Congregation appointed “proctors” to deal with the finance, infrastructure and PR activity of the medieval university.

With this in mind, we can surmise that the current state of the university system in the UK is a function of many interventions, by government and employers, over nearly 1000 years. But is what we have ended up with worth defending?

Selected background and further reading:

Anderson, Robert, “The Idea of a University Today“, (History and Policy, March 2010)

A Brief History of the University of Cambridge“, (cam.ac.uk, accessed October 2010)

Dyhouse, Carol, “Going to University: Funding, Costs, Benefits” (History and Policy, August 2007)

Hutchinson, Eric, “The History of the University Grants Committee” (Minerva vol 13 number 4, December 1975)

A history of congregation and convocation“, (ox.ac.uk, accessed October 2010)

Salmon, Mike et al, “Look back at Anglia” (http://www.iankitching.me.uk, accessed October 2010)

Also, the legend that is Joss Winn pointed me to this amazing paper, which covers the changes of the 80s in much more depth.

Finlayson, Gordon, and Hayward, Danny, “Education towards Heteronomy: A Critical Analysis of the Reform of UK Universities since 1978. ” (http://www.jamesgordonfinlayson.net, accessed October 2010)