It may be the time of year or the fact that my recent posts have been turgid and trite, but it’s all gone a bit quiet in comment land. So over the festive period I will keep my occasional posts short and sharp to reduce the feeling that I am the on-line equivalent of the person who sits next to you on the bus and shares just a few too many of their opinions about the Government, the council, the BBC and biscuits.
The news today is full of Peter Mandelson’s announcement that universities will lose another £135 million of central funding on top of the £180 million they already knew they had to find. Three points occur to me:
1. The protecting of schools budgets while HE sees deep cuts does not feel like it is part of a clear overall strategy on public spending. Schools have enjoyed rising real budgets for a decade. Most schools could save money without damaging the quality of education. Also, at neither the international nor the national level is there any clear correlation between the level of spending on schools and educational outcomes. Yet, it could be argued that higher education is not only a growing sector of the world economy but one of the few where the UK is without doubt in the top league, indeed on most measures we are second only to the US. No doubt the Government is expecting the student finance review to remove the cap on tuition fees and thus enable popular universities to get more income but there must be a danger of a funding gap.
2. Lord Mandelson is at least to be commended for giving the news straight to the sector, in a speech yesterday to the Higher Education Funding Council. Being so clear and explicit does at least give the sector some time to adjust.
3. Not for the first time Lord Mandelson called on the HE sector to be more flexible in its under graduate offer. This comes after a recent review demanding measures to make universities more open and accountable in relation to the quality of degrees. Some time ago I tried to get a project off the ground working with a number of universities around innovation in undergraduate degrees. We thought HEFCE might be a partner but after some initial enthusiasm the line went dead. My impression is that there is a great deal more innovation in teaching and learning in secondary schools than in universities.
Budgets cuts can, with the right leadership, provide the spur to innovative thinking. When it has got past its anger and anxiety (and realised it won’t be any better off whoever is in power) the HE sector needs to turn this looming crisis into an opportunity to think in new ways about the content, form and finance of undergraduate education.