Leader: Stop with the gloom and doom

Moaning about cuts won't win the sector friends or spare it pain. Its leaders must step up and make a positive case for its value

June 17, 2010

It's been a terrible week. What should have been a World Cup first match win for England was only a draw because of a goalkeeping blunder. "Hand of clod" was the verdict of the tabloid front pages, as calls for the hapless goalie's removal grew louder than a chorus of vuvuzela horns.

But if you thought hysteria and hyperbole were features only of the nation's obsession with football, there was Universities UK president Steve Smith in a Sunday newspaper to prove you wrong.

It seems that "our universities are standing on the brink of catastrophe". This headline offered a bleak note with which to kick off the inaugural Universities Week (14-20 June), whose proclaimed aim is "to engage with the public about higher education's often unsung and unheard success stories". On recent showing, those stories are going to remain unheard behind the loud whining the sector is now becoming notorious for.

First there was Michael Arthur, head of the Russell Group and vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, talking of "meltdown" and of cuts bringing "one of the world's greatest education systems ... to its knees". Now Professor Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, tells the nation that "our world-class university system faces the real possibility of a funding 'valley of death'".

Nicola Dandridge, the UUK chief executive, later added to the dire warnings by saying that "if severe cuts are inflicted, there will be future real and lasting damage" to the sector.

At this rate, the government's "cynical strategy" of attacking the salaries paid to university heads in a bid to silence vice-chancellors on funding cuts might find itself winning a few supporters from some unusual quarters.

Of course university leaders should oppose the cuts, but surely that opposition should be more nuanced than just howls of protest. We know that the country's finances are in more of a mess than previously thought and deep public spending cuts are inevitable. So exhorting ministers to heed the future social and economic prosperity of the country at this stage is pretty pointless: it's like planning next Sunday's three-course dinner when you haven't got the money to pay for today's sandwich.

And protecting the student experience? That won't wash as a reason to spare the sector the axe. What are we protecting in the eyes of the public? The six or so contact hours a week before a degree of dubious value is awarded? That's the perception out there, and there's a big PR battle to be won before we will see taxpayers rallying to that call.

Let's stop saying why higher education should be spared and let's start really showing why it deserves to be. Universities do wonderful work, but so do hospitals and so do schools. Can we really, hand on heart, say that higher education deserves to be treated more benevolently? There are difficult decisions to be made, and not only by our politicians.

Vice-chancellors are there to lead institutions through good times and bad. We are in an era of cuts and redundancies, of tough calls and no easy answers. It is in these times that we will see their worth. If they fail to devise a realistic strategy for the future, then and only then will we really be on the brink of catastrophe.


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