We've got to focus, people

Kevin Fong offers a few options for the sector in lieu of a realistic strategy

February 4, 2010

Guys, wake up. Smell the coffee. We’ve got a situation here; we gotta save higher education. It’s the bottom of the ninth, the scores are tied and I’m not afraid to use sporting metaphors in a bad American accent, ‘cos it’s about to get ugly. Funding’s gonna take a big hit and we’re all gonna have to dig deep to survive. So get in the huddle, quit your whining and man up some. Whoooaaaa!

OK, let’s start cutting costs. First off, get rid of that entire Universities and Colleges Admissions Service thing and put Simon Cowell in charge of who has the higher education “X Factor”. Hear me out on this one: these are customers we’re talking about, and we don’t wanna scare ‘em off with a Spanish Inquisition about their grades and the quality of their academic preparation.

Instead, have them sing a bit, then allow parents to ring as many times as they can afford to vote for their favourite student. All the magic of the market, and we get to cream off the fees from a premium-rate line. This takes the admissions process and turns it into a revenue item. That’s what I call a win-win, buddy.

Next, get the provost to win a seat in Parliament. Not as tricky as it sounds, and it pays big dividends. I’m guessing that the average campus university, if it got all its staff and students on the electoral roll and indulged in a bit of gerrymandering, would make a dent in the polls. Get the media studies guys to do something useful for once in their lives and help with the campaign trail stuff.

Now this doesn’t obviously make the university any money, but here’s the trick: once the provost has been elected, designate the college buildings as their second residence. Genius. No - better still, add a water feature and claim it as a humongous duck island. Double genius.

Woo hoo, now we’re cooking. Higher education, salvation is at hand, baby. We’re just getting started here.

Round two, let’s get rid of those pesky arts and humanities types; what has learning about the Romans ever done for us anyway? No one ever gave me a good answer to that (and I’ll have you know I asked everyone in the bar). And those bloody scientists: blue-skies research my ass. We’ve pumped billions into them, and for what? Lots of gloom and doom about the supposed end of the world and some moaning about how undervalued they are. Get over it, sci-geeks, it’s not like you invented the world wide web or anything.

Couldn’t you go build a space-borne frikkin’ laser that we could hold countries to ransom with? It’s about income generation, people! That’s the problem with those guys - not enough creative thinking. And really, is it asking too much to expect our engineers and slapheads to come up with a saleable everlasting source of energy? For Pete’s sake, science faculty dudes, you Marie Curie-loving, Faraday-quoting, Crick and Watson-spouting losers! Would you, for once in your miserable lives, have a go at doing something for the betterment of society? Is that asking too much here? Hell, forget everlasting energy - right now I’d settle for an everlasting gobstopper!

And now to fundraising; we really suck at this, people. I suggest we take a leaf from the Bernie Madoff school of administrative finance. Now look, I understand that Ponzi schemes have gotten themselves a bit of a bad name of late, but think of the upside. You can raise billions and it generally takes a good 20 years or so before anyone finds out what you’re up to. That’ll get you through three or four political cycles and at least one more recession, and by that time you’ll have been given a knighthood or a seat in the House of Lords or something. And yeah, your finance officer is likely to go to prison, but in these austere times someone’s gotta get out there and take one for the team.

Economics guys, you can stay - we appreciate your input, I understand what you’re doing there and you can keep on keeping on. Only we need some future-proofing, so can you organise yourselves and set up an investment bank, maybe? Preferably a really, really big one; ideally a huuuuuge one. I can’t guarantee you’ll succeed but you sure as hell won’t be allowed to fail.

Bing, the future of higher education saved in less than 900 words. Awesome! (Insert guttural celebratory sound here.)

We could, of course, do something old-fashioned such as recognise the strategic importance of our higher education institutions and the historic contribution they have made to the country and the economy.

We could try to formally evaluate what our system of higher education is really worth. We could have a sensible discussion, a debate even, about the relative merits of tuition fees and postgraduate taxation, about the future of higher education in the UK. We could do all those things but there’s that pesky election on the way and we’ve got to focus, people. I love the smell of stuff kicked into the long grass in the morning, it smells like … victory.

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