Over Easter weekend, the New York Times published an editorial about university funding, the headline conclusion of which was that the cost of higher education (i.e. tuition fees) was rising not because of decreasing state support, but because of ‘bloated’ administrative costs. Although one might want to sympathise with the latter half of the claim — especially given the UK pay survey reported in the THE at roughly the same time — the web erupted in anger over the first claim. See comments here and here.
It seems to me, however, that both sides are enlisting statistical facts in a disingenuous manner. There are some costs associated with running a higher educational institution that are not directly proportional to the number of students. (Running a football team would be a facetious example; running a library, producing marketing material or giving a lecture are a better ones.) The crisis in small liberal arts colleges should be understood — in part — in just this way. This means that a doubling of student numbers does not in principle need to be accompanied by a precise doubling of funding. This explains the NYT contributor’s bizarre analogy of military bases. But, it does not prove his case, since there are few if any costs that have no correlation at all to student numbers.
However, the lesson for us in the UK is that a proliferation of small institutions, each running their own show, is a recipe for funding difficulties now and in the future. This is, by the way, the other side of the too-much-concentration argument that Jon and I have been rehearsing on this blog. The relationship between size of each element, and the number of elements (likewise the diversity of missions of each), surely can be optimised for any given system of provision. At the moment, though, it is not optimised on either side of the Atlantic. Here, for example, official policy encourages a proliferation of small HEIs, but then only adequately funds roughly 20% of them.