Efficiency can be too ruthless

The need to run a tight financial ship is important, but it cannot be the sole determiner of the shape of higher education

April 18, 2013

There was a radio debate the other week about the importance to bereaved relatives of treating death as death rather than obscuring it with terms such as “passing away”.

Dealing in euphemisms might seem kind, it was suggested, but all it really does is avoid dealing with the reality of the situation.

Margaret Thatcher’s family might raise an eyebrow at this in light of some of the bitter responses to her demise, but it’s true that euphemisms seem increasingly ubiquitous.

This is particularly true when those in power wish to camouflage difficult decisions: a favourite of Chancellor George Osborne’s is “hard-working people” - by which he seems to mean “people barely earning enough to live”.

But what of higher education?

It is vital to offer a broad curriculum, and demand shifts from year to year; it would be a mistake to retreat en masse to a small clutch of identikit courses

Fifteen years ago, in times of plenty, the government prioritised three “Es”: “education, education, education”. Today’s equivalents are “efficiency, efficiency, efficiency”.

Clearly being efficient is a good thing - few people would argue for inefficiency.

But although its use may be accurate and necessary in some instances, in others it seems disingenuous or downright dishonest.

In this week’s Times Higher Education we cover a range of issues relating to the “efficiency” drive as it affects the sector.

In our cover feature, Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, warns about the grave threat of further deep cuts to public funding.

Universities, which have already endured a period of great uncertainty, wait with bated breath for the outcome of the coming spending review in June, and even greater uncertainty awaits after the next general election.

Not only will the Treasury be seeking immediate “efficiencies”, but there is also widespread acceptance that the new student fees and loans system is unsustainable and will need a major overhaul in the next Parliament.

In our opinion pages, meanwhile, we feature two sides of the deeply entrenched dispute at the University of Sussex over the institution’s decision to outsource its catering and facilities work.

The university’s position is that taking a “fresh look at how higher education works” is in the “best traditions of the university”, although it concedes that it does need to cut £500,000 from its annual catering deficit. Opponents, however, say that the endless drive for “efficiencies” puts the very spirit of higher education in jeopardy and that the plans risk divorcing Sussex from its local community.

Finally, we highlight in our news pages the number of courses offered by universities that fail to enrol any students despite the “weeding” that has gone on in some institutions.

Again, there are questions of efficiency, because offering a course will always require time, energy and, yes, some money regardless of whether anyone applies to it.

But here, too, there is a danger in focusing on efficiency alone: it is vital that our higher education sector offers a broad curriculum, and demand shifts from year to year, so it would be a mistake to retreat en masse to a small clutch of identikit courses.

Efficiency is important (more so than ever in straitened times), but we must be clear about what it means, the motivations behind it and its (sometimes ugly) consequences. It must also remain just one factor of many in shaping the higher education system we want.


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