Leader: Set straight by a painful setback

Sometimes an unpleasant knock can be useful in forcing people to rethink the most appropriate way ahead

March 29, 2012

Failure is an emotive word, particularly in education. But is it a sensible response to excise it from the vocabulary of teaching and learning altogether?

In our cover feature, Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Macquarie University in Australia, argues that we do students a disservice if we shield them from the reality of life outside the classroom: that failure is sometimes a necessary part of a successful life.

If failure is a term that is all but taboo in pedagogic terms, it is one that has been used with increasing frequency in other contexts, particularly when talking about institutions. This has not just been in higher education, of course: the banks, for example, were judged "too big to fail" and were bailed out by the taxpayer following the financial meltdown.

Universities cannot rely on the same protection, however, with ministers suggesting that under the new marketised system, they should be allowed to "fail".

This has been an approach long advocated by free marketeers, as set out in a report by the thinktank Policy Exchange in 2009, Sink or Swim? Facing up to Failing Universities.

The report argued that the "deeply embedded culture of shoring up struggling institutions as fast and as quietly as possible means that universities are unable to learn lessons from failure in other institutions".

The issue may be back in vice-chancellors' minds this week as the release by the Higher Education Funding Council for England of its grant allocations for 2012-13 sets out the difficulties many of them face.

Alongside the grant allocations, Hefce has released details of student number control limits for 2012-13, including estimates for the total number of undergraduates each institution will be able to recruit and the likely change year on year.

For those that have failed to negotiate safely the mantraps scattered by the higher education reforms, in particular the AAB and core-and-margin policies, the situation looks serious.

Some 34 institutions - including a number of the large metropolitans - will see their limits reduced by 10 per cent or more, according to Hefce's modelling.

The universities hit hardest are generally those that have lost places through the core-and-margin system, have been unable to bid to get them back because they set fees above the £7,500 threshold, and seem unlikely to secure big wins as a result of the liberalisation of places for students getting AAB or better at A level.

It would be quite wrong to suggest that these universities are about to fail - they are not - but double-digit percentage cuts cannot be shrugged off.

If core and margin is repeated year on year, any additional income that squeezed universities gain from charging higher fees will soon disappear. The cumulative effect would be critical and would surely force them to rethink their strategies.

The result could be more institutions dropping fees to access margin places, a reduction in the size of some of the larger post-1992 universities or even, in the longer term, a cut in the number of institutions.

A Tory-led government might not consider any of these outcomes a failure.


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