Sometimes headlines seem like an endless succession of repeats- a kind of Groundhog Day from a 24 hour media with little short-term, let alone long-term, memory. This morning we have had the annual complaint from Universities- not co-incidentally just ahead of the annual budget discussions they must have with the Education ministry- that they are in a "crisis" that will lead to unimaginable cuts.
Now, I am not one who imagines that all is rosy with the universities in the United Kingdom. Far from being the ivy-clad, ivory tower of cliche, many of Britain's higher education establishments are actually quite squalid places. While many uncomfortable, inappropriate buildings are being replaced, the fact is that the new buildings are expensive and as a result, the temptation of University administrators to overcrowd facilities has become overwhelming.
The basic problem is not so much that budgets may be cut and policies changed, but that they are changed erratically and with little notice. The government sees two valuable aspects of University life: the value that they have in improving the quality of the workforce in the longer term (and also reducing youth unemployment in the shorter term) and the distinctly lesser value of primary research. Yet, while many Universities regard research as their primary goal, the government regards teaching as the Universities primary role. Nor is this a feature of the Labour government. Conservative governments too have upgraded formerly teaching-led institutions such as the Polytechnics and central institutions into fully fledged, chartered Universities. The idea behind this was to eliminate a snobbishness about Polytechnics that meant that even a brilliant Poly had less status than a poor University.
The result has been that research funding now has to feed a much larger number of mouths, and expensive research- like physical sciences- inevitably struggles to gain critical funding for expensive laboratories. This is one reason why science teaching has gradually lost out to the cheaper teaching of humanities, because the scientific research side is not able to offer the right facilities. This in turn has reduced the number of graduates who can teach scientific subjects in schools and so reduces still further the pool of students opting to study sciences at Universities. This process has been going on for several decades, and has been a significant distortion of the British labour market: we have too few engineers and too many sociologists. The failure of governments to understand the links between primary research and undergraduate teaching has had significant consequences.
However, as the public sector funding crisis gathers momentum over the next few years, Universities are going to have to face new choices- and so are undergraduates. The levels of funding are going, inevitably to fall under two pressures: the pressures on government expenditure and the falling domestic undergraduate intake as result of demographic pressures. Many Universities have already responded to these by increasing their intake of international students. These overseas students pay full fees, and as a result they help subsidise the domestic students who do not. Yet domestic students, beyond their fees being paid, have increasingly less access to overall funding- the days of fully funded student grants are at least two decades gone. The result has been that students have opted to study closer to home, taking advantage of proximity to parents in order to reduce their bills.They have also increasingly taken part time work in a way that would have been surprising to the generation of 1960s and 1970s whose left-wing nostrums would have regarded such industriousness as class betrayal. Nevertheless, students have adapted to the sharp reduction in government funding.
Universities too must now try to take their lives back from government control. Some Universities are wealthy enough to escape government control by charging full fees but funding poorer students with bursaries which they can fund from their large endowments. Those Universities that are not wealthy are seeking to increase their independent endowments and also to focus their attention on a narrower, more specialised subject range. Others have created community out reaches to attract local students, including mature students form their immediate area. Yet others, by contrast, have sought to expand their overseas activities, including developing campuses overseas. All are perfectly rational, indeed commercial responses to the inadequacies of government funding. Yet- so far- only one University, the University of Buckingham, has opted entirely out of the government system, and this has been as much a matter of right wing ideology as of genuine need. Nevertheless, it is only going to be a matter of time before a major University decides to go it alone.
Yet all of this is happening without significant debate. Most politicians do not like to offend articulate students or their families directly, and as a result the debate has been extremely low key- no discussion of "hard choices" is made when those choices create significant resistance within the heart of the political establishment. Nevertheless, the time is drawing closer when a banal slogan like "Education, education, education" will need something real behind it. University reform is inevitable, they question is what form this reform should take in order to maximise the benefits to society as a whole and increase the quality of research in particular.
The annual media groundhog day of University funding discussions may be changing into a substantive debate about what we as a country want out of our University system and how best the Universities themselves can adapt to provide this- including a dramatic increase in self-funding.