A graceful slide to cheap 'n' nasty

February 28, 1997

Last autumn the Government was successfully bullied by higher education into supplying an extra Pounds 100 million to mitigate planned cuts this year: the price of persuading higher education to wait for the Dearing Committee report and keeping funding issues off the election agenda.

This week the English funding council has used that extra money to produce a Robin Hood settlement.

Cuts in real terms have been reduced across the board to a point where all should be able to survive another year if they allow early retirements, make a few redundancies, rationalise some departments, increase class sizes and drum up some more part-time or overseas students.

This has been done by taxing institutions which, under the published formulae, should have gained most - the successful research-dominated universities with many 5 and 5 star rated departments and most research-active staff.

Nothing new in this. It happens year after year. It is how the gradual - what the engineers call "graceful" - degradation of British higher education has been managed. It ensures that reform is postponed - and that excellence and the reputation of British higher education suffer.

Recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development figures show this policy biting. Britain used to spend a lot on each student but produce graduates cost-effectively. Now, the statistics show, our higher education is comparatively cheap in spending per student and very cheap in cost per graduate.

What the figures cannot show, but what everyone working in higher education knows, is that it is becoming not only cheap but nasty.

The funding councils have tried this year to arrange a set-up for the incoming government which will prevent its continuing this established policy of attrition. The council has issued those who have been taxed with detailed IOUs. The amount they should be getting is clearly set out.

Furthermore, they have been promised that they will get the money over the next couple of years.

At the same time those who are being bailed out this year are being warned of the savings they must expect to balance their books in the next two years.

The prospect is of universities at each others' throats in the next year as the research heavies demand their due, and of staff and management at each others' throats as the others cut back. Unless, that is, something is done.

A new government might prefer to tackle more exciting priorities before addressing the unpalatable options for reform of higher education funding which it will be offered by Dearing.

The funding council has done what it can to make such procrastination unattractive too.

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