V-cs, get set to do the maths (and prepare the begging bowl)

As UCL’s new provost is announced, Steven Schwartz considers the challenges facing the sector’s leaders over the next 12 months

Source: Elly Walton

Martin Routh died in 1854 at the age of 99; he was in his 63rd year as president of Magdalen College, Oxford. The college photograph of Routh, resplendent in robes and horsehair wig, reflects a bygone age when students were male, celibate (supposedly) and members of the established Church.

University College London’s provost-elect, Michael Arthur, is unlikely to match Routh’s long tenure. Although I wish him a lengthy and successful career, a vice-chancellor’s job is no longer for life - even though it sometimes feels that way.

Arthur is an experienced and successful vice-chancellor, and certainly does not need my advice. But if I were asked, I would suggest he ignore the doomsayers. Higher education was not “better” in Routh’s time - universities are better places now. Instead of only Anglican males, they are open to anyone with brains and ambition, and celibacy is optional.

UK university managers are neither venal nor mendacious, today’s students are no lazier or more feckless than we were, and the vast majority of graduates still find employment suitable to their studies. The quality of British universities is reflected in their high standing in the international league tables and is the reason why so many foreign students wish to study in the UK. Its higher education system is the envy of other nations and UCL is a world-leading institution, but this does not mean that Arthur’s job will be easy.

The coalition’s clumsy fiddling with fees and enrolments has produced a tsunami of unintended consequences (this year’s shortfall in student numbers being the worst). As the government shows no signs of remorse, universities can expect more tinkering in the years ahead.

The sector can also expect government support to keep shrinking. Increased tuition fees will make up some of the shortfall, but this year’s decrease in university applications suggests there is a limit to how much students will pay. Balancing the books will be the major task for every vice-chancellor.

Raising revenue by recruiting more international students is one solution, but an increasingly restrictive immigration regime puts the UK at a disadvantage relative to other countries. Educating the public and politicians about the importance of overseas students will test vice-chancellors’ public relations skills.

Because prestigious universities such as UCL are able to raise money from philanthropists, Arthur will find genteel begging the leitmotif of his life. Fundraising would be even easier if the British tax regime were liberalised to permit US-style “planned” giving. Such a change is unlikely in our austere times, but it is worth planting the seed in anticipation of an economic recovery (some day).

Increasing revenues is not the only way to balance the books: accounts can also be bolstered by reducing costs. Universities prefer to add rather than subtract, but sometimes cuts are inevitable. Thus far, UK universities have made savings by forgoing pay rises. Salaries are their largest category of expenditure, so keeping them down helps institutions to make ends meet. However, there is a downside to this strategy: UK academic salaries have fallen well behind those in Australia, Canada and elsewhere. Foreign universities have begun to poach the best UK academics by offering attractive salaries - particularly for star researchers.

There are better ways to make savings than limiting salaries. For example, universities are notorious for wasting expensive capital. Classrooms, lecture theatres and laboratories sit idle for months each year. A “Thank God It’s Thursday” culture means that buildings are underused on Fridays. Institutions can save money by using their buildings all week long and all year round. An added benefit would be that students could complete their degrees in two years rather than three. This would appeal to those who want to join the workforce earlier while also allowing universities to educate more people and collect more fees.

Online learning is another way to reduce costs. It is no panacea, and it may work better for some subjects than others, but it is certainly worth exploring. One thing seems certain: as online learning becomes ubiquitous, geography will become less relevant. Universities with foreign campuses may need to reconsider their purpose. Most overseas branches lose money, so replacing them with online learning is not only good pedagogy but also good economics.

These are clearly challenging times for any vice-chancellor, but a job without challenges is not really a job. As quaint old Martin Routh might have put it, Godspeed to Michael Arthur in the role ahead.

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