The global impact of UK university funding cuts

Thousands of students took to the streets of London in December to protest about the increase in the student fees. AFP/Leon Neal
Reports of the death of education may be greatly exaggerated. AFP/Carl de Souza

Universities in Britain are being changed beyond recognition by budget cuts which may be crippling for some institutions. Many of the reforms are inevitable in the current global recession, but they will be severe in their effects, uncertain in their consequences, and are often too ill-thought through. And the effects will be felt across the world. The university sector is a global network, and change is usually contagious.

When the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government was elected to Westminster last year, budget cuts began in earnest. Not just in education, but across the public sector.

Increased fees for students

Put in its simplest terms, the UK Government will withdraw its funding for education from universities, invest in the Student Loans Company, and transfer the cost of higher education to the student consumer.

From 2012-13, universities will be able to charge UK and European Union students up to £9,000, up from the current £3,500. Thousands took to the streets of London to protest about the changes. But to little effect. The situation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where there are devolved parliaments with some responsibility for education matters, remains complex and unclear.

£9K does not cover the cost of the most expensive subjects. And it may be too high for the humanities and social sciences.

Ministers appear to have believed that the free market would prevail. But as universities have done their costings, one after another has announced their intention to charge the highest fee.

This could mean that a further 36,000 undergraduate places may have to be cut to fund the likely £450 million funding deficit which will follow.

The considerable gap in time between the cuts (which have already begun) and the charging of fees will pose serious difficulties for all those institutions which were already in deficit before the recession or were heavily dependent on the government teaching grant.

Impact on research

Among all the cuts and uncertainties, there is nonetheless a far greater emphasis on engagement, on communication of research results and on transparency.

The Research Excellence Framework,in 2014, will examine, among other factors, the impact that a piece of research has socially, politically and economically. No longer will research only be about academic citations, if indeed it ever was.

Government funding will be limited to the staff who are the leaders in their field. The is of huge institutional importance and will involve a major cultural change.

Different contracts will need to be drawn up and there will be need to be more flexible careers in research-led teaching. It will be vital to ensure that universities aren’t reduced to becoming factories for business and industry.

Funding to the research councils is also being reduced and they are having to “do more with less”. The Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council have both lost considerable funding.

The focus will now be on clusters of excellence, as institutions and people work together to focus on cross-disciplinary research and on knowledge transfer and engagement.

The recession may yet make work to make inter- or cross- disciplinarity a reality – but only in some places and among those given the highest ratings for research.

There are fears that this will re-establish the difference between research intensive and teaching-only universities.

All of this is very close to the current anxieties in Australia around the proposed two tier system and concentrations of higher degree researchers in only some universities.

The importance of teaching

The government is trying to drive forward an agenda of greater accountability in learning and teaching too.

Universities will only be able to charge the maximum fees if they can show that they are widening access to higher education.

There is still a strong link between parental income and attendance at university in the UK. The link between the new fees regime and the profile of the average student will be an interesting area to watch.

And the subjects students study could change too. Money is to be moved to government priority areas. Work in areas which do not fit those priorities may be at significant risk.

Under the last UK Labour government, there was already a preference for supporting science, technology, engineering and maths. The former Prime Minister Gordon Brown thought these would be the areas which might be of most value to the country in the recession.

So the threat to humanities and social sciences, which are often considered “not economically productive,” remains. That mindset has to go.

The global risk

The recent UK Business, Innovation and Skills publication, Higher Ambitions, points out that with 1% of the global population, the UK achieved 12% of the world’s scientific citations in 2007/8. The UK arts and humanities community published 33% of the world’s output in 2006-8.

Anything that changes or inhibits this culture will affect research globally, and often in totally unpredictable ways.

At least one large commercial organization in the UK has announced its intention to outsource its research needs to Singapore, since UK researchers have become too expensive.

The Universities Minister, David Willetts, has again been in India negotiating joint research contracts as funding is cut in the UK.

These global effects are only just beginning. The economic issues driving change in Britain at present will almost certainly migrate to other places.

The challenges and opportunities

There is little choice but some real opportunity in what lies ahead. The levels of government scrutiny we are facing, along with the funding crisis, will be drivers for change.

Universities have to become much slicker, leaner machines if they are to survive. What remains of our traditional and historically derived economic and management models are unsustainable in this new context.

The training of staff to deal with these pressures has to be first introduced and then accelerated. Building leadership and management capacity at all levels within the university is key, and it needs to be done quickly. Universities need to communicate better with their staff and with one another.

These changes do pose real risks for the humanities but there are potential benefits too: work across disciplines, new teaching formations and directions, more flexible and appropriate career pathways, a better community and government understanding of the importance of the work that is done in these disciplines are all possibilities.

It will require much more flexible attitudes to change with much less emotional attachment to discipline based identities if we are to take advantage of these opportunities and to build again in new contexts.

This will only happen with training, development and support for all our staff. Where that has already happened there is a whole new generation ready to move forward in new ways.

Above all the future success of higher education institutions will depend on universities learning to re-imagine themselves regularly,and on learning how to be lead and managed, as well as how to lead and manage, in new futures.

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