Archive for October, 2010

Who pays for University degrees?

October 11, 2010

In which Dr Aust looks forward (or more likely doesn’t) to a rather uncertain future.

In among all the heart-warming pro-science activism on display through the fortnight that the wonderful Science Is Vital campaign has been going, there has been something else hovering in the background, at least for UK scientists in academic posts in the Universities.

This is the likely slicing away of a colossal chunk of the money that UK Universities currently get direct from government for teaching students – “HEFCE Teaching support”, as it is technically described.

I recently wrote a “Science is Vital” type letter to my local MP, describing all the ways that cutting the research budget is likely to hit science in my Faculty. I considered including, but eventually left out, the following paragraphs:

“Teaching of undergraduate students will suffer as University staff are put under more and more strain, and funding for University teaching is cut.

The same academics who run research programmes also teach undergraduate students, the next generation of scientists. Deep cuts to teaching AND research funding will inevitably directly impact this traning. Academic staff numbers will drop, since required savings will be met in large part by hiring freezes and by non-replacement of people who leave or retire – or,  more pessimistically, by redundancies.  If student numbers remain constant, this will mean more timetabled teaching hours for all staff. However, the same reduced number of staff will also be under increased pressure to apply for research grants which bring in direct funding.

In this scenario, it is absolutely inevitable that University staff will have less time for planning and thinking about teaching, and certainly less time for individual attention to students. With the best will in the world, the strong likelihood is that the quality of students’ experience will decline – and this at the very time when a skilled scientific workforce is most needed.”

In the end I left this bit out, as I decided to stick to just talking about research and the direct funding of it – but like most University academic staff, I think the two things are inextricably linked, at least for most people.

There are people in Universities who do research and no teaching, and are best left that way – provided they do good enough research to justify that being their major or sole raison d’etre.

There are also people who are happy just doing teaching, and preparing and organising it, and are not interested in research. Again, fine – as long as they do enough of this stuff, and well enough, to justify their position and salary. I know a lot who do.

But for most people, the job is a mix of teaching and research, in various proportions, and each informs and supports the other.

But there comes a point where something has to give. If you cut the money for research, inevitably making the highly competitive chase for what funding is left even more arduous, and at the same time cut the funding for teaching, there is a danger that the whole system will implode. Especially given the likelihood that:

(i) anyone within 5-10 years of retirement age will be tempted to cut their losses and bail out now; and

(ii) anyone who can leave for a job abroad where research prospects especially are better will be tempted to do that – the much discussed “brain drain”.

So what about these large cuts in teaching funding from the Government?

The figure that has been trailed is up to a 75% cut in the money that the Government gives Universities for teaching students. It is widely believed across the sector that Universities Minister David Willetts has told University heads that this is what is being considered, and the number has been discussed in the Financial Times and elsewhere.

When I first heard this, I ran the numbers for my own University and calculated, in a back of the envelope sort of way, how much we would lose. Money, of course, that means staff salaries. Including mine.

The figure worked out to many tens of millions of pounds.

It also worked out as almost exactly the amount that would be raised by charging each undergraduate student in the University an extra £ 3000 per year in tuition fees.

Coincidentally, Lord Browne’s review of student funding in English Universities, widely trailed and leaked over the last few months, is expected to recommend raising the cap on University tuition fees from the current approximately £ 3300 a year up to something close to £ 7000.

So students, in this scenario, will get hit with the burden of making up the cuts in Government funding for University teaching.

William Cullerne Bown of Research Fortnight, who seems to be one of (if not the) best informed commentators on these issues, has said this has been the plan all along – to shift the burden of paying for a University education from the Govt to students and their parents.

Now, virtually everyone in the UK Universities has been expecting the Browne Report to recomend raising the fee cap since well before the election. And since the Coalition took office, an increase in fees has been regarded as essentially a fait accompli. Another back story is taken to be that the Conservatives especially are determined to do what the Blair Government could not manage, and create a free market in UK University fees. The prediction in the sector is that Oxbridge, the Russell Group and perhaps some of the research-intensive 1960s universities will all charge the maximum, since they will figure they are unlikely to have problems filling their courses. Post-`92 Universities (the ex-Polytechnics) and some others will charge less, depending on what they think their target student population will be prepared to pay. In a free market of this type, Universities which cannot fill their courses will face severe financial problems, and there is a good chance that some Universities will go bust.

But there is now an even worse scenario, at least for the Universities, and one which arises from the very different pre-election views of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on funding University education.

The Liberal Democrats are historically opposed to tuition fees, and favour a graduate tax. Many of their MPs have signed pldges not to raise fees.

The Conservatives, in contrast, have always favoured fees in some form as a way of funding University education, and are keen to see the free market “let loose”.

The question is: what can they all agree on, and muster the majority to vote through the Commons?

Channel 4 today reported that some kind of consensus had been reached. Cullerne Bown, who seems to have excellent connections in the coalition, says that this is not really true. He thinks they are still arguing.

This matters critically in the context of the upcoming cuts. If the Goverment’s Comprehensive Spending Review, due next week,  cuts teaching payments to the Universities by 75%, there will be multi-million pound holes in the budgets of all the UK’s Universities.

If Parliament does NOT vote through a solution which allows Universities to claw this money back from somewhere else – and essentially this means from the students – the Universities will all face bankruptcy. This is the “Nightmare Scenario”.

So does Channel 4’s story mean the deal is done? William Cullerne-Bown thinks not. When I tweeted earlier:

“So is C4’s story on Uni fees deal ruling out @ResFortnight’s “nightmare scenario”?”

He tweeted back:

“I think not. Replace the word “deal” with “approach” and C4 story gets better. ie it ain’t over til it’s over.”

Either way, it is not a happy time for people working in the UK’s Universities.

Most University dons, who almost all benefitted from a largely free University education, are deeply unhappy with the idea of students graduating with vaster debt. The typical debt for students graduating now from our 3-yr BSc courses is around £ 20,000, so make that £ 30,000 with the likely fee increase.

But academics also view the fee increase as pretty much inevitable if the Universities – one of the few things Britain still seems to be good at – are not to be crippled, or even collapse.

So from inside the University it looks rather as if it is a case of “Damned if they [the Govt] do, damned if they don’t”.

Finally, Channel 4 tells us that

“Vince Cable will make a statement to the Commons tomorrow afternoon and is expected to indicate then the adjustments to the Browne proposals which the Coalition intends to go ahead with.”

I will be listening. And so will a lot of other people, both in the Universities and outside.

PS If I have time tomorrow I may put up an update on what Cable says. Though I am sure many other people will cover it.


UPDATE:  noon Tuesday 12th

The Browne report is out. To nobody’s surprise, it recommends lifting the fees cap (see my comment in the thread below) .

The Guardian has a useful rolling news blog here covering reaction to Browne’s proposals.

With respect to Cable’s statement this afternoon, the BBC news channel’s chief political correspondent has tweeted that:

“Vince Cable tells BBC he’ll only give a ‘preliminary’ response to Browne this afternoon, but report is ‘on the right lines'”

– she also tweeted:

“Browne report give lib dems a headache – one MP tells me this morning he thinks as many as half could vote against”

According to the Guardian, several Lib Dem MPs have already stated publicly that they will oppose the Browne proposals as they stand. Expect much more info on this as the day progresses.

Meanwhile, my friend Prof David Colquhoun has his own views on how UK University education could be reorganised. They are published in the Times today, but you can read them at slightly greater length on his blog.