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.

A university has two major sources of income: on the one hand, the UGC grant and that other income (mainly from fees and endowment) which the UGC takes into account when it determines its grant; on the other hand, research grants and contracts. The first of these two sources is meant to make full provision for teaching and to provide basic facilities for research: but much of the cost of expensive research projects is met by grants from the Research Councils or by other similar means. This is the so-called ‘dual support system’, which worked well for a long time. Recently it has been crumbling as universities find themselves less and less able to provide a well-equipped basis for research. Research Councils have done what they can to take over costs which universities would formerly have met from the UGC grant, but their real income is not increasing and in any case there is a limit to what they can properly do. Ministers have made it clear that the cuts in recent years are meant to fall on the costs of teaching and not on research. The best evidence that this is their real intention, and not merely what they find it convenient to say, is that, in a period in which virtually every controllable part of Government expenditure has been reduced, the total income of the Research Councils has been left in real terms almost unchanged. It is true that the cuts that have been imposed must fall on research as well as on teaching, because of the way they have been made: but I believe this to be because Ministers do not really understand how universities work, and that is to be ascribed to the almost total collapse of communication between universities and government.

A year ago, the major financial problem for universities seemed to be the loss of income – and the uncertainty of income – that followed from the Government’s new policy on overseas students’ fees. Despite considerable pressure from inside this country, and from other Commonwealth countries, that policy remains wholly unchanged; and there is nothing to suggest that any likely future government will change it – though we can reasonably hope that a different government will put more money into bursaries for deserving overseas students. In the coming year a few universities will be charging overseas students what they estimate to be the full cost of teaching them. It must be emphasised that this is not the same thing as the ‘full economic cost’ in the sense which the Government has put upon that phrase. It would be unreasonable to charge overseas students not only the cost of teaching them but also a proportionate share of the cost of maintaining adequate research facilities. Nevertheless the Government’s arithmetic assumes that universities should charge overseas students this share also, and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals have been so choked with moral indignation that they have felt unwilling to argue over definitions. Thus even if all universities were to charge overseas students fees based on the principles which underlie the Government’s action, the research base in the universities would have been inadvertently cut by 12 per cent.

A year ago, the then Secretary of State said that throughout this decade he expected to be able to provide, so far as home students were concerned, for constant student numbers and for constant unit income in real terms. It was not long before that expectation was abandoned. Last Christmas he announced that in the next year there would be a 3½ per cent cut in the grant to universities, additional to the cut which followed from the new policy on overseas students’ fees; and at Easter he announced that that 3½ per cent cut was only the first part of an 8 per cent cut spread over three years. The total cut in university income over these three years is now estimated at between 11 and 15 per cent – and to me the higher figure seems the more plausible.

The immediate cause of this latest cut is, of course, the present economic crisis and the need to cut that part of public expenditure over which the Government has some control. But it is worth looking deeper than that, for we must hope that the crisis will eventually ease, and we need to assess whether these cuts are likely to be, at least in part, restored. In my view, they will not be restored. The grant to universities has been at risk for some years, and it is probably only the momentum common to all spending programmes which has prevented it from being cut earlier. The clearest evidence of this is the lack of any protest, except for ritual noises from the TUC, from outside university circles. To explain why this is, it is necessary to go back into recent history.

The British university system, in its present form, is the child of the Robbins Report, and more particularly of the Robbins Principle. It does not now matter what Lord Robbins actually said, or what he meant: what he was taken to mean was that every 18-year-old with two A levels who wished to go to university should be enabled to do so. There have never been quite enough university places to achieve this, but the growth in places has very nearly matched the growth in demand; and it is only in the last two or three years that the wisdom of this policy has been challenged. Part of the case for the policy was based on social justice, but it was also widely claimed that a massive expansion of university education was the key to national prosperity.

It didn’t work out like that. The failure to produce prosperity might have been shrugged off: there have been many recipes for prosperity and none of them has succeeded. But the much publicised troubles at the end of the Sixties led ordinary people to doubt whether all those who were getting a university education deserved it or gained from it; and the support which all too many academics gave to rioting and disruption undermined the respect which universities had previously enjoyed. In particular, it made it acceptable, as it had not previously been, to question the way in which universities organised themselves. At the same time, there were beginning to be doubts whether economic growth could be indefinitely sustained, and expansion had caused the cost of the university system to rise to a level at which economies might save a significant sum.

It was in this context that Shirley Williams, as Minister of State for Education, put forward her 13 points. These were possible measures of economy, put forward as the first step towards a rational dialogue with universities. They were brusquely rejected, in terms which made it clear that universities did not intend to discuss their affairs with outsiders. How foolish that was has gradually become clear. It has left the widespread view, both in Westminster and in Whitehall, that the university system is not to be moved by reasoned argument, and that British universities are as wastefully organised and as feather-bedded as British Rail or British Steel. Some more recent events – the reception of the Atkinson Report on Russian Studies, for example – have reinforced that view. The money at stake in the Atkinson proposals was trivial. But the Report was seen as a symbol, and the way in which it was treated may have cost universities dear.

So I do not regard the recent cuts merely as an aspect of an economy drive. I think they reflect a belief that the university system needs to reform itself, and the only way in which it can be forced to reform itself is by financial pressure. Those who are applying the pressure do not know what reforms are needed, any more than they did for those nationalised industries which have been given the same treatment. But they will know whether there are changes or not, and if there are none, the screw can be tightened further. Perhaps no other government would have been resolute enough to embark on this course: but no likely government will reverse it.

If this is so, it is not a matter of making ends meet until better times come. Every university will have to reduce its expenditure to match its diminished income; and though reserves may provide a little help, this reduction must be done painfully quickly. There are in fact two distinct problems: to cut expenditure in the next two or three years by whatever means are possible, and to decide what the long-term shape of a more economical university system should be and how by the end of the decade to achieve that shape. Most universities, it seems, will have no option but to dismiss tenured academic staff, despite the problems which that poses and the bitterness and divisiveness which it will engender. What the cost of such action will be, no one can yet be sure; and no one will be sure until cases are taken all the way to the House of Lords. The costs may vary dramatically from one university to another, depending how the Statutes of the university happen to have been drafted. Some of the figures now being rumoured will be not merely beyond the capacity of a university to pay but beyond what is politically acceptable in comparison with redundancy payments in other walks of life. If the rumours are right, the problem will rebound into the lap of government – but not that of the present government, since no case seems likely to reach the House of Lords until after the next general election.

Tenure was created and is defended for the protection of academic freedom, but it looks increasingly as if it is for the protection of jobs. Compensation for the dismissal of tenured academic staff will be seen as what in more vulgar forms of employment is known as ‘buying out the rule-book’. No academic can be blamed for trying to drive the hardest bargain he can. But a new government, faced with a bill of perhaps £200 million because of the ill-thought-out actions of its predecessor, may conclude that there is an alternative both politically and economically more acceptable. This would be an Act of Parliament retrospectively abolishing tenure, together with a compensation scheme for those dismissed which would probably be no more than comparable with whatever other redundancy schemes the Government was operating at the time. This is not an attractive prospect, but it is a possibility which it would be foolish to ignore.

Tenure, in the strong form which it takes in Britain, has already come under fire – partly because it has been put forward as the reason why universities cannot make quick economies. I am not one of those who would defend the British system of tenure: indeed the advantages to universities or to scholarship that are claimed for it seem to me disproved by the evidence of other countries. In America, whose system is the closest to ours, it takes on the average seven years from obtaining a PhD to being considered for tenure; and half of those who are considered do not get tenure. Even when in America tenure is achieved, there are escape clauses: a university can get rid of tenured staff if it lacks the money to pay them, or if it wishes to close down a whole activity. In most Western countries, the position is even more flexible. To most of its academic staff the university is in the position of any other good employer: it hopes to retain them permanently, it will pay them reasonable compensation if it fails to do so, but it gives them no absolute assurance. Even more significant, perhaps, is the fact that about one-third of British universities do not have tenure: staff are indeed appointed to retiring age, but that appointment is subject to one year’s notice. I have not seen in those universities the evils which tenure is meant to avert.

Moreover those who defend tenure, as implemented in this country, have two particular difficulties to face. The first is the inadequacy of the evidence on which it is given. Initial appointments are for a three-year probationary period, with tenure following if that period is successfully completed. In fact, the decision on tenure has to be taken within two years of first appointment, and the pressures to give tenure are so strong that it is seldom refused. To be able to assess, on at most two years’ evidence, that someone deserves to be employed in an exacting job for the next 40 years in absolute security would be remarkable; and it is no wonder that some of the decisions have turned out indifferently. Cambridge, uniquely, is free from this fault. The existence of Assistant Lectureships, which are necessarily transitory and from which it is no disgrace not to be promoted, does mean that tenure is only given to scholars of some maturity.

The other difficulty is at the other end of a career. In every branch of learning, maturity has advantages as well as disadvantages: for some of them, indeed, maturity is essential. So it is no surprise that some academics are still making valuable contributions to teaching and research at an age when they would have been forced to retire from most other kinds of employment. But not all academics age so slowly, and there is no other profession in which it is as easy as in universities to hold one’s job while no longer doing it properly. If tenure is to continue at all, it needs to be combined with a substantially lower retiring age. A university could continue to employ, on either a whole-time or a part-time basis, those who had reached retiring age but were still active and vigorous: but it would no longer have to continue to employ those who were not.

A permanent reduction of the retiring age, effective immediately, would also achieve that reduction in staff numbers which government cuts have imposed on the university system – and in human terms it may well be the least cruel way of doing so. But it is essential that the reduction in the retiring age should be permanent. Many people within universities are advocating meeting the present crisis by the premature retirement of the older staff, and then carrying on as usual. The consequence of this would be that, once the immediately needed cut in the academic staff had been achieved, there would be no further retirements and therefore no new appointments for a decade. Teaching may survive a decade with no new blood, but research certainly will not: such a policy would be the sure path to mediocrity for our whole university system.

Professor D.S. Jones, the Chairman of the UGC Mathematics sub-committee, has put forward for his own subject a quite different policy for deciding which academic staff should be shed. He points out that the great expansion of the Sixties meant that far more academics were recruited then – and that consequently the standards of those recruited were lower – than at any time before or since. University teachers who were recruited then are now in their late thirties or early forties, and are not so old as to make a change of career impossible. Moreover, while Government policy will not allow the universities to employ as many teaching staff as they do now, there is a desperate shortage of mathematics teachers in schools and sixth-form colleges. It is therefore university teachers in their late thirties and early forties who should be made redundant, because there are other jobs for them in which their talents will be just as valuable, whereas if older people are made redundant there is nothing but retirement open to them. These arguments may not be applicable to all subjects, but they have a wider relevance than to mathematics alone.

Further off, but likely to have an even greater effect on the university system, are the potential changes in post-compulsory education. Until recently, education beyond the age of 16 was organised primarily for the benefit of the top 15 per cent of the age group – those who could hope to go to university. Others could stay in the system, but they had to get what benefit they might from a system that was not primarily designed for them. The emphasis is now shifting towards the needs of the top 50 per cent: a new Robbins Principle is coming to birth – that anyone who would benefit from education beyond the age of 16, and wishes for it, should be provided with it in some form. The forms may be very diverse, and they will be more oriented towards the needs of employment than the original Robbins Principle envisaged: indeed it is significant how often the phrase ‘education and training’ is now used.

This has implications for A levels, for, however good they may be as preparation for those who plan to enter universities, they constrain education between 16 and 18 in a way that is unsatisfactory for an increasing proportion of those who experience it. There have already been attempts to reform A levels so as to broaden that stage of education. Those attempts failed because of the practical flaws in the proposals; and the flaws may well have been there because the proposals were half-hearted. Future schemes will be more radical. Universities are deeply conservative bodies; arguments against change, and statements that there still remains scope for further discussion, will always find a ready hearing in them. But in this matter change is inescapable, and how much say universities have in that change will depend on how constructive a part in the debate they choose to play. There is nothing inviolable about our system of A levels: indeed there is no other major country in the world which has the degree of specialisation between 16 and 18 that we do. Universities have a particular duty to protect the interests of the brightest schoolchildren. For them, it is vital that their education should be sufficiently demanding to stretch their abilities and retain their interest: but it is not nearly so vital what the content of that education is.

More generally, we must recognise that universities will be less dominant in British education than they have been accustomed to be. Universities do a good job for those students who come to them: the problem is that a system which has been built around them does not provide what the less good students need. We would be wise to accept that there must be changes in the national system of education, and that universities will have to change too if they are to serve their students in the new system as well as they have served them in the old. What we face is not the emasculation of Higher Education in this country, unless by our own folly and intransigence we make it so. But we do face great changes, and it is natural for those who have grown accustomed to things as they are to be apprehensive of what may come. For all we know, the caterpillar may view with equal apprehension his inescapable transformation into a butterfly.