Prospects for Higher Education

Peter Swinnerton-Dyer

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.

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