I’ve now foisted five posts upon you about how the current economics of the university in England make no flipping sense and explain some of the problems the sector is currently experiencing. In this last one of the series (barring a possible response to myself I’m brewing over), I want to try and delineate where I think things have to go if nothing is done. This involves taking a step backwards as well as trying to look forwards.
A long long time ago – I can still remember – how the university used to be funded. Students got grants for their maintenance and their fees were paid by their Local Education Authority. I don’t know where that budget came from, whether local or national, but it was paid at county, district or city level. External funding was obtainable, but there were block grants to support both research and teaching, the support which became the modern QR funding. Cost to the actual student was potentially nil. I came out of my undergraduate education about £1500 in debt, almost all of which I had spent on music, out of my M.Phil. about the same (this time on childcare) and out of my Ph.D. down by about 4 grand all told, mostly overdraft and personal debt and paid back, out of my own wages, over the next two years. It’s not like that now. Of course, there were also fewer universities then and I don’t think that anyone except the National Union of Students thinks we can go back to that; whatever the failures of the student loan system to lift that expenditure off Westminster (all slightly horrifying links, those), it was adopted because Westminster no longer thought it could afford the student grant.1 I can’t imagine any travel backwards in that direction in our current political climate; although Jeremy Corbyn promised it and Sir Keir Starmer has so far held to that promise, his chance to act on it doesn’t look to be coming any time soon. So where are we going instead?
Any answer to this must admit that, while the government may be wrong about what the university is, their policies make it fairly clear what they think it should be, which is employment training, and especially in obviously remunerative disciplines like engineering, applied sciences and medicine (the ‘STEM’ subjects, which they will subsidise when they will subsidise nothing else). As part of that trend we have seen not just the increased powers given to the Office for Students – which it still hasn’t really ever used, just turned into a still greater burden of data collection – and the occasional mutterings about restoring vocational colleges and polytechnics, apparently oblivious to the fact that we do actually have a Further Education sector too and that it also is in repeated throes of industrial action due to staff wage cuts and cruel management practice. But however badly it is provided for, we can see what it is that they want: employment-ready workers in the areas the country stands to make the most money from, and not much else. And that does not require a fully-fledged university sector to deliver.
Some parts of the government may also think of universities as centres of innovation, but until the fall of Special Agent Dominic Cummings the plan seemed to be to try and place any such support of innovation in a new central state research centre, a kind of UK DARPA (the USA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and not in universities. There was never a clear promise of extra money for the Research Councils that administer most UK research funding, and indeed at one point threatened budget cuts (in the end postponed, but not reprieved) had them firing staff from ongoing projects as their budget disappeared. Neither was that new: I remember myself when the government withdrew funding for the Arts and Humanities Data Service, the digital archive into which all projects funded by the erstwhile Arts and Humanities Research Board for the previous few years had had to deposit their digital production so that it would never be lost. That was while I was doing my Ph. D., which I started with that deposit requirement and finished without it, because there was no longer a repository into which to deposit. The archaeology section was saved by JISC and the University of York and everything else went into an archive which for some reason Kings College London maintain (see the AHDS link previously), to what benefit to them I can’t imagine. That’s what state-funded research planning looks like in the UK. So the central projects agency always seemed an odd choice for a Conservative administration, compared to trying to encourage the private sector to do it instead, and now the pandemic has wiped away all memories of Boris Johnson’s promises to increase the country’s R&D spend, it seems much more likely that what is going to happen is the worst of both worlds; innovation will be looked for in the private sector, there will be no R without associated D and universities will be expected to find their own money from external bodies, ideally not the UK’s, which are being shrunk, but Europe’s, to whose research competitions we have now been allowed to continue applying, but only after a year of hiatus. So universities can get on with what they can still manage like that but fundamentally, it seems that if the state is to pay for research it is going to concentrate on research with a quick economic return, which it may try and manage centrally or may hope to get done by industry. And universities don’t need to form part of this plan either, though they will need to try in order to retain their reputations, and will therefore probably do it without cost to the government, a win-win for Westminster.
There is, admittedly, some political recognition that our universities are internationally prestigious and contribute to local and national economies, both because of employment and also because of graduates who often stay in the universities’ areas and earn money for a while after graduation. But I don’t think it’s clear to such persons why vocational colleges wouldn’t have the same effect on the economy, or that the most prestigious universities wouldn’t be able to carry on on the basis of their prestige by recruiting internationally. And that may not even be wrong. But it doesn’t look like a university sector staying at its current size. It looks, rather, like Oxbridge and a few other really big hitters managing to stay afloat, even affluent, on international fees and research grants, albeit in all except Oxbridge’s case probably minus a few low-return departments and subjects, and most of the rest either transitioning into FE colleges with degree-awarding powers (and thus driving real FE colleges out of business) or going to the wall. Research in engineering, medicine and industrial subjects will be funded through companies who produce the results of that research; research in anything else will occasionally be funded by grants and mostly be a matter of amateur curiosity. Medieval history will, I forecast, not do well in this prospective era.2
So is there an alternative? I would love to think that it is the NUS’s fully free higher education, but I don’t see, as the Western sun begins to sink towards the horizon, where the money’s coming from for that; the Occident can only snobbily starve the rest of the world of international recognition for its university provision for so long, and even that only protects revenue, it doesn’t grow it.3 Otherwise, I have to admit, it doesn’t look good. These posts have pointed at some of the problems with the current system, and some of those contain within them the seeds of solutions. Why, for example, is a graduate tax – which is effectively what student loans repayments have become, except less progressive than a planned tax might have been – why is that tax levied on the employee rather than the employer, or on both like pensions? (Not that pensions are a good model for survivable strategies just now…) Could a universities chest not be funded by levies on those who want to employ graduates?4 This would also shrink the university sector, no doubt, as employers decided that actually maybe this job or that job didn’t actually require graduate employees, but it might once again differentiate the functions of Higher and Further Education. Likewise, we could cease allowing publication of someone’s work for profit without paying them. If that means ending incentives based on publication, well, that’s the price of keeping the show on the road, albeit again probably a smaller show.
But these are only patches. They might not be enough and even if they were, the political will to adopt them—a tax on business for employing people? What are you trying to do to the economy?—isn’t there. And it’s not all that’s needed. There also needs to be adequate National Health Service welfare provision to which universities can outsource the deepest of their student support and mental health needs (and should, too, because of their vested interest in keeping the students at university and paying fees whatever their state). There need to be reforms to the school system, carried out in conjunction with academic advice from universities about what that should mean a curriculum looks like. These would let schools and HE + FE actually join up and represent coherent developmental pathways towards individual futures (a bit like the system they have in the Netherlands but maybe a bit less deterministic?). But each one of these things is a huge and expensive project to deliver a future far beyond the term of any elected government. It would require our politicians to invest in the future of the country, not the present.
So I’ve been on strike and I will be on strike again, because I think the current situation is unfair and unsustainable, but I’m not surprised that that failed. Escalation will now be the only choice for both sides, sides that could, however, be working for the same goals if they all wanted. I believe that UCU offered a workable solution to the pensions situation, as the pension scheme itself agreed, but Universities UK unanimously rejected it. This could actually be solved without serious cost, if university leaders actually wanted to solve it. The gender pay gap, admittedly, is not so simple because of equalities legislation (ironically), but there are ways to solve it which don’t have to cost anything overall; universities’ human resources departments just need to sit down and plan it out.
Solving casualisation and the declining value of pay, however, both mean making the same money go further, by cancelling either infrastructural stuff or else investment which may each in turn have effects on the university’s income. So, if we get those conditions agreed, we must understand that it will mean fewer jobs overall, albeit those more secure. And if there are fewer of us total, then the workload issue will get worse not better. While the universities’ incomes are so restricted, and the future of them so uncertain, there is no scope to solve all of these problems at once. It’s tempting to say that the solution is for all universities to go private and manage their own destinies, but that would surely only increase the marketisation of the university and its formation as business, deprioritise all non-remunerative activity still further and probably still not pay for anything but a rather smaller sector. But we really can’t do more with less any longer. The available solutions all seem to involve fewer doing the same or less, but with more. But with that, and the associated dim hopes for improvement on at least some fronts, I shall leave it. I would, of course, be very interested in your comments on any and all of these posts, not least because in many places I’d quite like to be wrong! In the meantime, this has been useful in sharpening my thinking and I think I have one more, short piece I could write, addressed to the politicians (refusing to get) involved. But I may see if anyone wants to put that somewhere it will be more widely seen first…
1. You can see the government’s own assessment of the problems, but also of the money to be clawed back from passing those problems on rather than solving them, in The sale of student loans by Amyas Morse, HC 1385 (London 2018), online here.
2. Though it’s always salutary and encouraging to remember that once, giants walked the earth and told politicians exactly why they needed medieval history: see Jeevan Vasagar and Rebecca Smithers, “Will Charles Clarke have his place in history?” in The Guardian 10 May 2003, UK news, online here.
3. Obviously, I don’t really have a platform from which to say such things, being on the happy side of it; but Race MoChridhe, “Linguistic equity as open access: Internationalizing the language of scholarly communication” in Journal of Academic Librarianship Vol. 45 (Amsterdam 2019), pp. 423–427, DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2019.02.006 and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “Decolonising the Mind” in Diogenes Vol. 46 (New York City NY 1998), pp. 101–104, DOI: 10.1177/039219219804618409, kind of do and you can read them instead of me. Some more informed perspectives also in Derek Peterson and Giacomo Macola, “Introduction: Homespun Historiography and the Academic Profession” in eidem, (edd.), Recasting the Past: History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa (Athens OH 2009), pp. 1–28, online here.
4. As noted previously, I was not the first person to think of this idea: see Fairer funding: the case for a graduate levy by Johnny Rich, HEPI Policy Note 10 (Oxford 2018), online here.