The madness of UK higher education

An anonymous university leader muses about what could happen to higher education in the UK if tuition fees are slashed

January 8, 2019
Source: Getty

Hazily, New Year’s Eve drifts into New Year’s Day and it’s Madness. A BBC commissioning editor with a wry sense of humour – or a past career in higher education.

It’s madness. Possibly the best, most well-regarded and efficient system of higher education across the globe. Maybe a hand on the tiller or a tweak to the carburettor, but this…

Let’s change the regulatory structure and publicly commit ourselves to welcoming – even ensuring – failure. Let’s disincentivise students and discourage them from studying here, and let’s talk of swingeing cuts to a fee that has risen by less than 3 per cent in seven years.

It can be done, of course. Society doesn’t want it, the sector doesn’t want it – even the past three ministers for higher education don’t want it – but a one-issue prime minister seemingly does.

Reflecting on the worst Conservative prime minister for a half-century – perhaps a coin toss between the present incumbent and Edward Heath, who lost two general elections and was ousted by Margaret Thatcher – there might be a way forward…

The leaks from the Augar review may deliberately exaggerate, but a one-third cut in tuition fees would destroy our current university system.

The cheesepare becomes the butcher’s knife. Contact is slashed, support is slashed, buildings ossify, free community use is consigned to history and, worst, we create a less well-educated society and undermine the economic integrity of those communities who depend on the higher education and student pound.

There may be a slightly less insane alternative. Back to Heath and his three-day week to conserve energy during the coal miners’ strikes – until sense prevails, the three- or four-day-a-week university.

Face-to-face contact Monday to Thursday. Libraries open for 16 hours a day, not 24, with 10-hour Saturdays and – to the delight of the Day One Christian Ministries – no more than a six-hour Sunday.

Salaries would suffer, but a 0.8 contract on existing terms might be preferable to redundancy for one in five, particularly as take-home pay would fall by a smaller percentage and any changes could be phased in across three years.

As in parts of the US system, staff would be free to seek funded research and consultancy opportunities, additional third semester contracts or simply have more time to fulfil domestic responsibilities – or pursue their own interests.

In a fortieths pension scheme, five years of four-fifths employment, pending the upturn in the age cohort, equates to a year’s additional service, hardly out of line with the upwardly mobile retirement age.

Maybe this is madness, too. But the wholesale dismantling of the university system threatened by every leak from No 10, HM Treasury and the Augar review is scarier still.

Once destroyed, perhaps the best, most well-regarded and efficient system of higher education across the globe will be lost for ever.

The author was a vice-chancellor in the early 2000s.


Print headline: It can’t happen here

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Reader's comments (2)

I think the writer does Heath a disservice. While he most certainly made mistakes, most fo the decisions he made were at least predicated on some semblance of reason. The same cannot not be said to day, where it s difficult to tell what demented thought processes are at work with current government policy.
Why is the author writing in an anonymous capacity?