Crisis, what crisis?

A fellow blogger and former colleague recently wrote a piece in his Imperfect University series, entitled Apocalypse Now, where he reflected on various recent writings on the future (or not) of the university.

Like Paul, I disagree with the hubristic statements of Sir Michael Barber and Sebastien Thrun and see them as no more than attention grabbing headlines to draw the press to their visions of education that is “broken” and can be “fixed” with technology.

However, even when we ignore the clarion call of MOOC boosters, the academy, in the UK at least, is under threat primarily by changes to funding and the resultant impact on behaviours.

With cuts to the budget of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills of £450m announced it is clear that there will be even less money available from government in future for universities.

After Michael Barber’s paper on “An Avalanche is Coming“, Prof Steve Smith proposed that the true avalanche coming was actually finance.

His words were prescient – the changes to undergraduate student finance and the current loans scheme has made those universities that are heavily reliant on undergraduate income to try to behave in a neoliberal marketised way.

Further, the forthcoming cuts at BIS are almost certainly going to target the student opportunity fund, even at a time when OFFA has written to show the benefits of access agreements on improving access to university.

This week OFFA provided their annual monitoring of access agreements that showed:

  • universities and colleges have met, or are on course to meet in the planned time, 90 per cent of the targets that they set themselves in their 2013-14 access agreements
  • one in three targets has been met three years ahead of deadline
  • 87 per cent of targets relating to disabled students, 87 per cent of targets related to gender and 79 per cent of targets related to ethnicity have been met, or are on course to be achieved in the planned time

Those universities who are the most committed to widening participation, evidenced through their student opportunity fund allocations, are likely to see a large percentage fall in their income. These are also the universities who might be less able to recruit on a national scale, and have missions focused on delivering higher education to their local communities.

Finally, in a recent publication for HEPI on “The Accounting and Budgeting of Student Loans” Andrew McGettigan shows how the financing of student loans is now driving HE policy. Under the options presented to show what BIS must provide to the Treasury, McGettigan suggest the cap on fees could remain to be frozen at £9000 which would not be popular with some if not all, universities, that the repayment threshold could be at a lower salary than £21000, which would be unpopular with graduates. Interest rates, repayment rates and write off rates could all be changed without need for legislation.

In sum, the Treasury appears to have imposed a settlement which requires BIS to improve repayment rates or risk seeing its other spending cut year-on-year. The accounting is pushing policymakers towards certain solutions, which may not be in the general interest of universities and colleges or students. At the very least, they need proper debate because higher education needs public goodwill, not just public money

The financing of higher education continues to create difficulty within the academy and within government. However, as Paul wrote on his blog:

Universities have to look to the long term and have to continue to invest. If we accept the most negative of these prospectuses we would all just give up now. But they aren’t true and we can’t let them be so. Our universities are not collapsing. The Humanities are not dying. There is and will continue to be huge demand for higher education in this country and across the globe.

It is of course much easier to call crisis, to identify failings and to attack, cry betrayal and criticise leaders. Sometimes this is justified. but when it becomes the dominant narrative then we are really not doing ourselves any favours in higher education.

This might apply to the sector as a whole, but within individual institutions we need to be aware of the dangers that marketisation and changes to financing will have on how we plan our futures, how we make sure that universities don’t collapse.

I am not as sanguine as my fellow blogger. I still believe in the need for a university such as the one I work in. I also believe that the current narrative is not favourable to us and we need to be ready to defend ourselves and explain why we are important, beyond the simple “chose a degree, chose a job, choose to pay tax, choose life” narrative. There is a continuous attack on the academy (other than on the “top” universities), on the humanities, on anything that cannot be simply monetised. This will become the intellectual  crime of the century – just pick up a Daily Mail to “read all about their schemes and adventurings”. As we define what we want our universities to be, we mustn’t become complicit:

Who are these men of lust, greed, and glory?
Rip off the masks and let’s see.
But that’s no right – oh no, what’s the story?
There’s you and there’s me
That can’t be right

(lyrics by Supertramp)