Prospects for Higher Education
The election of the present Government abruptly halted, and indeed reversed, the growth in Higher Education which everyone in the profession had become accustomed to over the last twenty years. The policy of charging ‘full economic cost’ fees to overseas students, the 8 per cent cut in support for universities announced in the last Budget, ‘capping the pool’ for polytechnics and the more recent cuts in that pool, and the cuts in support for technical colleges and similar bodies which have been forced on local authorities by the budgetary ceilings imposed by central government, will all lead to a reduction in the number of students and to a bigger reduction in the number of staff and in the facilities provided. My impression is that the cuts were meant to fall equally on all sectors of Higher Education, and no one has enough information to judge whether in fact they did so. I shall be concerned here largely with the university sector, because that is the one which I know best: but any planning for the future will have to look at Higher Education (indeed perhaps all post-18 education) as a whole, and not at universities in isolation.
The cuts of the last two years may form part of a plan for Higher Education, or they may simply be a gut reaction to excessive government spending. If there is a plan, it has been well hidden – but doctors often apply a cure without telling the patient what it is. Nevertheless, I believe that those in Higher Education need themselves to produce a realistic plan for what should happen, in the hope of thereby influencing the next government, and to produce forecasts of what is likely to happen, so that we can minimise the damage that contraction will cause. An Alliance or Labour government may be more sympathetic in principle to Education than the present one appears to be: but it will be just as intent on reforming the present system. Some resources may be put back into the system after, or even just before, the next election, though the economic situation will not make that easy: but no foreseeable government will allow us to use those resources simply to restore the system we know and love.
Not everyone would share these views. Indeed, many leading figures in British universities maintain that at present all forecasts are damaging: for any realistic forecast must be gloomy, and gloomy forecasts are apt to be self-fulfilling. They believe that the way to minimise damage to the university system is to carry on all our activities as usual, and to react to external pressures as little and as late as possible: that policy will avoid unnecessary sacrifices, and may lead to the cuts imposed on the system being smaller than they would otherwise have been.
I believe that this hope is vain and that any policy based on it is foolish; and that those universities which follow it will do themselves unnecessary damage. Universities cannot hope to pass through the next few years unchanged, and we shall all have to learn to live with less resources than we have become accustomed to. What we are facing is not just a squall that will soon die away, and to come through the impending storm we shall need to lighten the ship. We shall have to cut away some things that are in themselves good, in order to be sure of preserving what is excellent. Because the cuts that will be needed can only be brought about gradually, we need to consider now which cuts should be made and we need to start implementing them as soon as possible; we cannot afford to wait until it is evident to all of us that the situation is desperate. It can be argued that the least damaging cut would be to close some universities and leave the rest unscathed: but whatever its merits, that is a policy that could not realistically be implemented. Each university will suffer cuts, and will have to choose between a drop in its standards and a decrease in its range of interests: to avoid the first alternative, it will have to accept the second.
In forecasting the constraints and changes which seem likely to be imposed on the university system, I am not implying that I welcome them, or even that I think they will necessarily do the system good. Even when I suggest how we should react to these constraints and changes, I am doing no more than to suggest which of the choices open to us is the least damaging.
The two major concerns of any university are teaching and research. It is not possible to divide up the expenditure of a university explicitly between teaching and research, saying that this item is for teaching and that item is for research. Nevertheless, one can tell roughly what the balance is, and in particular one can tell if the balance is shifting over the years. In the last seven years, the period of declining resources, the balance has shifted towards teaching and away from research. Universities have increased their teaching staff and the range of subjects they cover: but in real terms they have decreased spending on libraries, on equipment and on consumables. This has been the easiest path to follow: pressure both from students and from unions is for more teaching and more jobs. It takes some time for the price of such a policy to become evident. But the price, in the gradual collapse of scientific research in some universities, is becoming evident just at the time when the policy has become far harder to reverse.
Vol. 3 No. 22 · 3 December 1981
SIR: I am worried about Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer’s argument (LRB, 19 November) that the shrinkage of universities can’t or ought not to be resisted. In the mid-Sixties this was what everyone said about the British coal industry. The issue dividing the parties was not whether or not coal had had its day (obviously it had – everyone from the editor of the Times to the panelists on Any Questions knew that oil was cheaper, burned better and was easier to handle than coal), but how rapidly the mines should be run down. Today what everybody knows, with equally suspicious unanimity, is that the Robbins principles were hopelessly utopian, that universities diluted their standards during the Sixties and Seventies by taking in too many students and hiring a number of under-qualified teachers, and that (worst of all) the great largesse lavished upon higher education failed, as Sir Peter says, to ‘produce prosperity’.
What are the facts? The ‘Robbins revolution’ increased the age-participation rate at British universities to a staggering 4.8 per cent (now falling), and the figure for all forms of British higher and further education to around 12 per cent. It is hard to see how that proportion of the 18-to-21 age-group educated at universities and polytechnics, even over ten years, could have made much difference to national wealth (if one insists on defining ‘wealth’ so narrowly), especially given the reluctance of industry, the law and the Civil Service to alter their modes of recruitment to take account, not only of the increase in graduates, but also of the different kinds of graduate.
Now the universities are being told that they will be further penalised for any applicants they accept beyond the age-participation percentage to which the Robbins ‘revolution’ has already lapsed, and the rest of further and higher education is to have its ‘pool capped’ at something below its present student numbers. (What an inappropriate metaphor, by the way, since the oil in a capped well, like coal, can be used at a future date.) It really is time to turn and ask the Government to explain – and it is particularly the responsibility of Vice-Chancellors and Her Majesty’s Loyal and Silent Opposition to insist on a reasoned answer – why they consider the British to be so uniquely untalented that more than 10 per cent or so of the age-group represents a ‘dilution’ of our institutions of higher learning, when the comparable figures in other advanced countries range from 22 to 50 per cent. Are there more students elsewhere because other countries are richer? Or are other countries richer because they have faith and hope in more of their populations? I do not know the answer, but I am sure that the failure to fulfil even the spirit of Robbins cannot constitute an experiment proving anything.
Sir Peter ends his article with a touching – though, in the circumstances he outlines himself, fancifully optimistic – figure of the universities as a caterpillar afraid to become a butterfly. Some caterpillar; some butterfly! My own analogy would be a large rocket on the launching-pad which, when it began to smoke and rumble and shake the surrounding buildings, was shut down in anxious haste before it could get off the ground.
Vol. 3 No. 24 · 17 December 1981
SIR: Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer (LRB, 19 November) continues to be vastly pleased with himself, his university (‘Cambridge, uniquely, is free from this fault’), and the lucid hardheadedness with which he settles all the issues that need facing.
On tenure contracts he repeats a currently fashionable non-sequitur that because tenure was designed to protect ‘academic freedom’ it has no business to be invoked ‘for the protection of jobs’. The two are not so easily separable, and more is at stake anyway than the two terms of this distinction (even if it were not a false one) by themselves suggest. First, the UGC’s pressure on individual universities to discontinue, reduce or expand particular academic activities in ways which might entail particular staff redundancies is precisely a breach of that ‘academic freedom’ which tenure was designed to ‘protect’: the freedom of universities and of individuals within them to pursue what they judge to be their true academic priorities, unmolested by externally-imposed conceptions of what these priorities ought to be at a given political moment. The immediate burden falls where academics have always had reason to fear it – on those areas of disinterested and speculative inquiry which are not considered at the time to be useful, profitable or socially desirable. Contraction is inevitable in times of economic stress and universities must accept their fair share. But it is precisely against the direct, crudely applied and irreversible consequences of such stresses that tenure’s protection of ‘academic freedom’ is most urgently needed.
The UGC may believe that it still just about preserves the fiction that universities are free to follow their academic judgment within the financial limitations. But its present (perhaps reluctant) posture of bullying dirigisme, backed by heavy ministerial noises off, seems calculated to achieve the opposite effect. The vocal and public admonitions of what the Government wants to see done (including the encouragement or discouragement of particular subject areas, and apparently the abolition of tenure itself) directly challenge that ‘academic freedom’ which Sir Peter and some leader-writers believe is no longer at issue.
The Charter of my university (like that, I assume, of some others) specifies in close detail the conditions under which an academic employee may be dismissed, and these do not include fluctuations of government policy. University Charters are not private contracts. They are granted by Royal Prerogative through the Privy Council, and their provisions have a public and national validation which the Government cannot shrug off as it might shrug off the haphazard products of agreements among private bodies or individuals. Ministerial encouragement of breach of contract would, of course, be unsavoury even if the contracts were of a more private kind (as they may be in some universities). But there is a distinct likelihood that a general abolition of tenure might entail retrospective legislation, a thing considered repugnant in British Parliamentary tradition as an infringement of freedoms not merely ‘academic’. Sir Peter somehow manages to inject a note of complacency into the very act of opining that this is ‘not an attractive prospect’. It is a measure of decline in public standards that a person in a position to be well-informed on such matters should be able to suppose, no doubt with justification, that it is a real ‘possibility which it would be foolish to ignore’.
The tendentious cant which reduces tenure to a false distinction between freedom and jobs also sidesteps a simple, glaring fact whose moral and social implications ought surely not to be overlooked. Tenure contracts are legally binding agreements on which large numbers of individuals have built an entire choice of life. These have usually been talented people, with other and more lucrative careers open to them at the start. Their trust in the security of the tenure system was part of what made it possible for them to develop the increasingly specialised skills which the advanced pursuit of their academic disciplines demanded of them, and which cannot easily be transplanted outside a University context. They have committed years or even whole lifetimes to research and to teaching programmes not immediately applicable elsewhere. Are the rules suddenly to be rewritten retroactively for a few thousand such people?
Sir Peter is probably right that we give tenure too early. This is one of the things about the system which requires overhauling, though not, in a civilised society, at the cost of a wholesale breach of existing contracts. But even here his comparisons with other countries are not scrupulously exact. It is true that it takes longer to obtain tenure in the United States and that some teachers are not kept on. But there are in America many more university institutions (proportionately to population) where such teachers may find employment, including tenured employment, if their original institution does not keep them on. American universities employ, by comparison with British ones, a huge turnover of junior teachers, and it is easier for a young academic to find a first job there. Because this is not so in Britain, the competition for first posts has always been exceptionally strong, and there is almost certainly less likelihood in British conditions of making a really poor initial appointment. And once it is achieved, tenure is in practice very firm indeed in the United States, as also in other major Western democracies. A senior French academic told me recently that in the French tenure system ‘posts can be made redundant, but not persons’, though tenure is again achieved more slowly than in this country. We may or may not accept the value of a tenure system, but as long as it exists it is a matter of public trust.
Department of English, University of Warwick
Vol. 4 No. 1 · 21 January 1982
SIR: Not many academics will disagree with Professor Swinnerton-Dyer (LRB, 19 November 1981) that the recent cuts in university funding reflect a belief that universities will only reform themselves under financial pressure. They also reflect a widespread belief that the only reform of universities needed is a reduction in their size and intake. What will puzzle many academics is why he thinks that we have no choice but to accept the destructive consequences of these beliefs. Perhaps the clue is provided by his reference to the 13 possible economies suggested by the Department of Education and Science under Shirley Williams. Professor Swinnerton-Dyer implies that the universities’ ‘brusque rejection’ of this invitation to a ‘rational dialogue’ was the mortal sin for which due retribution is now exacted.
This approach to the present predicament can, however, be refuted. For it ignores a fundamental aspect of the Robbins-based expansion. The universities embarked on this expansion on the assumption that the valid model for undergraduate education was the model of Oxford and Cambridge. Residence away from home and intensive teaching in very small groups are among the essential features of this model. The 13 points were an unexpected shock, not because they were economies, but because they showed that the DES were completely unaware of the fundamental assumptions on which the universities’ work and achievements were based. This made rational dialogue difficult. With hindsight, we can now see that the universities should have embarked there and then on a public relations and education campaign, directed not least at the DES, to convince the public that high-cost, high-quality undergraduate education was a worthwhile investment for a democratic society. Late in the day though it is, such a campaign is essential now to forestall further cuts and to persuade an alternative government to depart from present policies, which are inspired by philistinism rather than the need for economies.