Diving into the shallow end

Malcolm Gillies applies the rules of lane swimming etiquette to funding

September 30, 2010

Under the City of London's timeless motto - "Domine, dirige nos" ("Lord, direct us") - the Golden Lane Leisure Centre proclaims the rules of "lane etiquette".

As I strip off for my morning swim, I frequently peer at these time-honoured words of advice. While doing my laps I wonder about their broader applicability to my day, where there are also a lot of fish splashing about in undersized and underfunded pools.

• "Swim in the appropriate lane for your swimming speed": mission groups, please note

• "Follow the directional arrows at lane ends": whether you are meant to be moving left to right, or right to left, perhaps in the age of coalition government it is best just to swim down the middle, despite the odd ideological head-on that will result

• "Be considerate of other bathers when diving into the pool": Calling all Russell Group vice-chancellors - please remember this when you propose your final solutions for the "pile 'em high, teach 'em cheap" universities

• "Refrain from swimming backstroke during busy periods": it is better to crawl at the moment, isn't it?

• "Ensure tumble turns do not impose upon other swimmers": we are trying to remember that one at London Metropolitan University right now as we negotiate the lane's end

• "Allow swimmers who wish to pass to do so": graciously remembered by Harvard University as the University of Cambridge dashed up the inside lane for world stardom, at least in one world ranking

• And last: "Please note that aggressive or abusive behaviour towards staff or customers will not be tolerated at any time."

Even without the visiting Pope, this is truly a time for divine guidance. "Lord, direct us", as the City advises.

It is that last rule of etiquette that I think about most: "abusive behaviour towards ... customers", that word we commonly use now for the students within our learning communities.

Amid the jostling for ever-scarcer funds, attempts at reinvention and occasional eye-gouging, I don't hear much about our support for our students during their time of crisis. Because, however you put it, we are cost shifting towards them.

Are we abusing their trust? While we talk institutionally about maintenance of reputation, position and excellence, the questions on my future students' lips are more likely to be: can I afford it now?; can my family sustain such a level of debt?; will it help me get a job?; will I succeed?

Most of the £10 billion that UK universities receive each year from the public purse goes to support student learning. Well, our UK and European Union students' learning.

On this educational side of the equation there are now three basic options: cut government funding per domestic student; cut the number of funded student places; or increase the private funding coming from students, whether through up-front fees, repayable loans or graduate tax. And we may end up having to invoke all three options. Whichever way you look at it, we are currently shifting costs on to students or former students, whether or not they graduate.

The fact that this "cost shift" towards our students is occurring largely because of a "loss shift" to shore up our banks only means we need to be more sympathetic to our students' impending plight. They, too, are victims of "light-touch" regulation!

On the research side, the special pleading for exemptions in the national interest may only shift cost cutting more solidly on to the educational side.

True: British research has a great reputation - more so for excellence than for impact - and we should seek to preserve that reputation. Also true: Britain has a great reputation for higher education - more so for quality and standards of qualification than for curricular or pedagogic innovation, I'd suggest - and we should seek to preserve that reputation also.

When push comes to shove - and that moment is upon us - which gives, or gives more?

Put another way: should we be seeking to shift costs even more decisively to students to preserve more research? Or should we cost-shift somewhat less to students, and cut more areas of research?

In recent weeks, our two higher education ministers, Vince Cable and David Willetts, have given interesting steers on both points.

On 9 September at Universities UK, Mr Willetts reminded vice-chancellors of the importance of good teaching, which he considered somewhat eclipsed in recent years. He stressed higher education's obligation to help boost social mobility.

On 8 September, in his speech at Queen Mary, University of London, Mr Cable proposed only two forms of justified government-funded research: the commercially useful and the theoretically outstanding. Indeed, he saw now as the time to weed out mediocrity in research.

However, the alternative idea of shifting research costs to business, which presumably benefits from that commercially useful research, did not meet with Cable's approval. After his 15 July speech at London South Bank University, he explained under questioning: "Business employs people and leads recovery of the economy. This is the main contribution of business."

In which case, it would appear that the only substantial substitute for current government funding in research is profit from the educational side, itself already more heavily funded by our students' higher contributions.

Just as international students don't like being referred to as the country's nth largest export industry, so, too, our UK and EU students need true respect if they are to become the new fudge factor in our funding equations.

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