Leader: Seek out the silver linings

The struggle for economic recovery will present the sector with opportunities - it must seize them and put them to good use

January 1, 2009

The description of 2008 as a year of "remarkable twists and turns" by Deian Hopkin, the vice-chancellor of London South Bank University (page 21), may be something of an understatement.

In addition to economic meltdown, last year saw a shock halt to further growth in student numbers after the discovery of a £200 million hole in the student-support budget; the Government refusal to back down over the decision it made to cut £100 million from funding for students taking second degrees (ELQs); the first new Higher Education Minister in almost four years; a total pay award of 8 per cent - much larger than originally expected; and the biggest-ever research assessment exercise, which is set to shake up the £1.5 billion-a-year funding landscape for the next five years (page 4).

But whatever hit us in 2008, it is almost certain that this year will be even more tumultuous: it would be foolhardy to suggest that higher education faces anything other than a very rough ride in the coming months.

The sector is already grappling with rising utility bills, salary payments and pension costs, along with tougher competition for international students. And on the near horizon looms a bitter dispute as the University and College Union takes action in support of its call for a further 8 per cent pay rise.

In this climate, there is little hope of significant public investment. The Chancellor has been explicit that his Keynesian "fiscal stimulus" will mean spending cuts in the not-too-distant future - even if the economic rescue package works and the Government's optimistic growth targets are met.

But 2009 will also be a time of opportunity. The Government's drive to ensure that higher education plays a key role in economic recovery has been backed by "employer-engagement" policies and some funding. For universities, the challenge will be to make the most of the situation without allowing a utilitarian view of higher education to take over or imperilling the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

As it grows in diversity, the sector must also grow in voice and make itself heard to ministers. This will be especially important when the Government publishes its response to the reviews it commissioned to examine the threats to the sector over the next ten to 15 years.

These have already been criticised for being too narrowly focused and for being produced not by expert panels but rather by individual vice-chancellors, and they have attracted very little public debate. Yet they will set the scene for the review of student tuition fees, which will help shape the long-term financial health of the sector and its future global competitiveness.

But the fees review, like the Dearing report of 1997, looks likely to fall victim to a political deal that will keep its conclusions under wraps until after a general election.

In this climate, there is a risk that fundamental issues will not be subjected to the rigours of a full - and fully public - political debate: why does the UK still not invest as much of its gross domestic product in its universities as its key competitors; what is the correct balance of contributions between the state and the individual beneficiaries of higher education; what is the value of a university education for its own sake; and what is the sector's role not just in the UK's economy, but in its society and culture?

It is up to academe, as critic and conscience of society, to ensure that genuine debate takes place and that its voice is loudly heard. Times Higher Education looks forward to supporting that endeavour.

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