Sunday, 21 June 2015

What next for Higher Education in England?

The election of a majority Conservative Government in the UK probably came as a shock to most academics and students. Most students voted Labour or Green (or, in Scotland, for the Scottish National Party): most academics probably sympathise more with Britain's Left than with David Cameron. But Mr Cameron it is who's continuing in No. 10, and now he's now not encumbered by those troublesome Liberal Democrats who he always used to bring on stage when he wanted to stop his party doing crazy things.

So he's got to carry forward Conservative policies in the area where they've already done quite a lot of economic and financial damage: Higher Education. What might this mean, especially in England?

Now Labour, the SNP. the Greens and (to a lesser extent) the Liberal Democrats were all committed to a pretty similar spending path in the next Parliament: that there need not be actual in-path cuts beyond 2016/17, and there need not be an overall, as opposed to a current, balance, at all until the next Parliamentary term in 2020-25. So that would have allowed them to basically pull back on the cuts pretty quickly. Not so the Treasury team that's now drawing up July's 'emergency' Budget, and which will be seeking about £4bn from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. You want that in context with your fries? If that all fell on HEFCE, the universities' funding body, and on science and research, those two spending headers would lose nearly two-thirds of all their cash. Widening participation; teaching expensive subjects; grants rather than loans; science and research: much of it would be annihilated.

Now, that won't happen. No-one's that stupid. But big, big cuts are coming, at a time when teaching has had no increased unit of resource since 2010. That means redundancies, closed departments, slimmer teaching staffs and much higher staff workloads. It cannot mean anything else. Now, Ministers can allow fees to rise, and that might fill some of the gap. Say they allowed them to go up to £11,000 or £12,000 - an increase in resourcing of about 20%. That won't fill in (after inflation's taken into account) for the loss of what remains of the state-funded teaching budget, and expensive and/ or unpopular subjects - Chemistry, perhaps, or Modern Languages - are going to feel the pain more than most.

Even if more money does come in from fees, Ministers are not just going to allow universities to name just any old target. That'd be all right for now, because the spending goes in the black part of the Treasury's ledger - totted up as assets - but in the long run, as projections of how much students can or will pay back continue to fall, that means that the taxpayer will be fleeced. There's a limit to how much you want the loan book to drip with the red ink of long-term losses, especially when you probably want to sell it off at some unspecified time in the future. Hence Ministers' unhinged suggestion, in the last Parliament, that universities themselves might raise the money to push fees up, loaning it on to plug the gap. Er, no. Anyway, suffice to say that just raising fees to make up for lower government spending (or, that answer to Russell Group prayers, taking the cap off altogether) seems unlikely.

What remains? Well, forcing up 'productivity', for which read: making lecturers work harder. Now, everyone can always squeeze efficiency savings out of somewhere, but one has to be careful when an industry's main input is a stock of notoriously fragile (and rebellious) human capital, and when the balance between teaching and research is so delicate - and economically beneficial, in the latter case. Push too hard, and productivity will go down, not up. Still, Ministers look likely to push ahead with the idea of a 'Teaching Excellence Framework' - a pedagogical version of the dreaded Research Excellence Framework, that lumbering and well-past-its-sell-by-date monster of an academic audit that decides where some of the Government's research cash goes. In some ways this might be an opportunity for less prestigious institutions - where everyone knows a great deal of excellent teaching goes on, despite Russell Group propaganda to the contrary - to prove their mettle. But should it prove to just involve a load more form-filling, with some imaginary and forever-delayed pot of gold waiting for you when you get a certain number of good feedback forms from students or high scores in the National Student Survey, then it's likely to become another hated instrument of that centralising control that all good conservatives (and Conservatives) should reject and resist. Our last-but-one Universities Minister, David Willetts, has recently accepted that publishing more information, and 'more focus on high-quality teaching', will have to be part of any fee-raising package. That sounds like a much more likely part of any overall deal.

Lastly in terms of the financial hits, immigration policy will get much more restrictive - a mad and bad policy when most students will go home after their studies anyway, and just downright national self-harm in the one of the country's most important industries. But there you are: it's a popular and easy-to-implement headline and vote grabber, and it's coming. That'll throttle off another source of cash: as will a possible exit from the European Union, another source of student recruitment (although not one that's nearly so lucrative as non-EU tuition, given that there's no limit on how much you can charge for the latter) and especially a research funding pot that the British have been very, very good at profiting from in the past.

As the financial weather gets colder, the sector's uniform character will begin to break up. Universities will increasingly focus on what they're 'good' at - especially in terms of vital student recruitment, if research money is going to be scarce - and lop off the bits that are making a 'loss'. Fields, departments, whole faculties will go. It'll probably happen more slowly than in the 'car crash' that some Vice-Chancellors worry about, but they'll still be gone by 2020 or 2025. There just won't be the will to keep the blood travelling around the patient's body, as poorer and more financially marginal parts of the sector move into the life support ward.

What's even more worrying is how even gradually rising rising fees will affect the sector in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There different fee regimes are in place (there are no tuition fees at all in Scotland, though up until now the living cost support system for students from low income backgrounds has been much less generous to make up for some of that spending). With some English universities poised to make much more money, by taking in many more students even if the fee cap is only gradually raised, the situation in those countries will become increasingly unsustainable without the injection of large amounts of new cash. With the Scottish Government already embroiled in a series of rows about university freedom and accountability, having already cut Further Education to the bone and got rid of a good deal of its up-front assistance to students for living costs, that may be impossible without tax rises there. In Cardiff and Belfast, where of course the opportunities to raise money are much more limited, academics even at 'elite' institutions such as Queen's and Cardiff might have to resign themselves to a slow process of managed and relative decline.

So the implications of a majority Conservative government for Higher Education are these: gradual declines in funding across the board; more bureaucratic 'monitoring' of teaching and increased amounts of form-filling; a loss of some key science and language skills; more specialisation and differentiation; a threat to European student recruitment and research funding; and a gradual drifting apart of the four nations' universities as cash and kudos flow towards the English parts of the Russell Group. Some of these trends were locked in anyway, and some specialisation might be desirable. But, overall, it is hard to conclude anything other than that the sector is headed for a tough, cold, nasty old reckoning - years of butchery that will test management and staff to the utmost. You have been warned.

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