No new year cheer here

Alan Ryan declares "Bah, Humbug!" to resolutions for university funding

January 1, 2009

One unlooked-for advantage of incipient retirement is that it provides a good reason not to make new year's resolutions. Aside from the usual problems with weakness of will - I might sincerely intend to be nice about vice-chancellors during 2009, but by the first week of term blind rage and exasperation would certainly have got the better of me - there is really no point.

A systematic effort to become tidier, more consecutive in my working habits, better-tempered, more co-operative, and a model of time management would take at least five years to make much difference; learning how to use the TV's remote control would probably be more useful.

What we are all going to need for 2009 is a character transplant. Some version of the Spartan capacity for surviving on very short rations would be a good start. Although academics are a self-pitying lot and quick to see the cloud behind every silver lining, the past decade has been the most comfortable for more than 30 years. It is impossible to believe that the next decade will be anything like as comfortable - and the shock will not be funny.

Between 1979 and 1999, things really were pretty grim. The "unit of resource" was eroded by annual settlements that left universities with steadily fewer resources in real terms. By 1999, universities were operating on something like 60 per cent of the resources they'd had 20 years before.

Governments called their cuts "efficiency gains" and, no matter what their political stripe, simply lied about the damage they were doing. At least I hope they were lying; it would be intolerable to think they were so stupid or ill-informed that they believed what they had said.

Oxford is better placed than most but, even so, by 2003 it had almost doubled the number of undergraduates it taught while barely employing any more front-line teaching staff than it had in 1983. Like every other Russell Group university, it coped with some of the shortfall in resources by having more of the teaching done by graduate students and short-term lecturers of one sort or another.

I've never understood how the ex-polys coped at all - when they were polytechnics, their faculty were teaching anything up to 18 hours a week, and very often were spread thinly across four or five courses into the bargain. How they preserved more than the most minimal face-to-face contact between students and teachers, heaven knows.

Over the past decade, a regime of inflation minus 1 per cent - or sometimes 1.5 per cent - has been replaced by something close to inflation plus 2 per cent. Ministers are telling the truth when they claim that the Government has put something like 30 per cent more resources into higher education in real terms. Simple arithmetic shows that that leaves the unit of resource a lot lower than 30 years ago - even now - but for people who had got used to watching the steady erosion of their per capita resources for teaching and research, it was an agreeable change.

It's impossible to see it being sustained. On the left side of the ledger, it's implausible to think a Labour Government facing a tight general election is going to allow universities to charge more than the present £3,145 - adjusted for inflation.

It is pretty obvious that lifting the fee cap would not damage the worse-off students, who are protected by means-testing, but telling the electorate anything so counter-intuitive is a hopeless task. The fact that the National Union of Students has become so sensitive to the plight of people earning more than £60,000 a year suggests the way that mere facts are powerless to sway opinion.

On the right side of the ledger, it's impossible to believe that higher education will be protected from the cuts that the Government admits there will have to be to pay for both past profligacy and present economic policies. Any protection will, rightly, be directed at primary education, especially for children from underprivileged backgrounds.

In a long drawn-out recession, higher education will serve the familiar purpose of blotting up youth unemployment and, by the same token, going to university will be an attractive alternative to searching for a non-existent job. But the attraction depends on its being a cheap way of blotting up the unemployed.

In some respects, it may not be a disaster. It's not impossible to teach well on much worse staff-to-student ratios than the average in the UK system. There are certainly things that it's impossible to do, but not all teaching is training future researchers, just as not all teaching is trying to fine-tune the musical or literary skills of young people in the top 1 per cent of their age group.

The University of California at Berkeley has a terrible staff-to-student ratio at undergraduate level, but still turns out thousands of well-taught and ambitious graduates. The greater problem is likely to be the effect on the next generation of academics.

Nowadays, the progression from graduation to employment as a lecturer is long and drawn out and, like any ladder, it depends on every rung being in place. What cuts will do is to knock rungs out of the ladder: fewer awards for a masters, fewer for doctoral work, fewer post-docs, fewer career development fellowships and lecturerships.

Thirty years ago, the US system went through a decade when the taxi driver with a PhD was the same sort of iconic figure as the 25-year-old investment banker taking home a million quid bonus. Anyone who remembers all that won't be looking forward to the next few years.

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