AUA Conference: V-c casts doubt on humanities funding

Reluctance to engage with Government's practical agenda could prove costly. John Gill reports

April 16, 2009

Doubts have been raised about the future of research funding in the arts and humanities by the president-elect of Universities UK.

Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, said that although funding for the sciences was secure, he did not believe that the arts and humanities had made the case for continued public support.

He expressed particular concern about what he saw as the sometimes wilful failure of the disciplines to co-operate with the Government's demands for researchers to demonstrate the social and economic impact of their work.

"That's a key question: what impact does research in the arts and humanities have?" he asked.

"The battle for science funding has been won, I see no threat to its budget. But ... if you were sitting in the Treasury, you would ask: do we need 159 institutions doing humanities and social science research?

"I am afraid, and I speak as a social scientist, that when Treasury officials ask social science and humanities people what they get for their money, what the impact is on the economy, the answer all too often - and this is the polite version - is: 'Please go forth and leave us with more money.'

"As they get on the train back to London, do they think: 'Gosh, they've got a jolly good point there?' I suspect they don't."

Professor Smith was speaking at the national conference of the Association of University Administrators in Exeter, where he used a keynote speech to set out the challenges, threats and opportunities facing the sector.

Perhaps inevitably, many of the difficulties he forecast were financial.

He admitted: "It worries me greatly that my time as UUK president is going to be spent focusing on economic pressures."

He suggested that among the audience of several hundred administrators were many who had never managed a university during a downturn. Pay and, more significantly, pension costs would become harder to meet, Professor Smith added, and the steady growth in public funding enjoyed over the past decade would end.

Looking forward several years, beyond the long-awaited review of fees, he said that the bulk of future funding would have to come from students, which in turn would have to be invested primarily in student services as expectations rose in line with fees.

"The only source of future funds, whatever the colour of government, is the individual in the long term," he said.

A more immediate financial danger identified by Professor Smith was the Government's threat to fine universities that ignored its freeze on additional student numbers, imposed after miscalculations in the student support budget exposed a £200 million deficit last year.

He said: "We've worked out that that adds up to £9,500 per student per year, so if you over-admit by 100 students, that's £1 million per year for three years. These are serious issues for the sector."

Raising his eyes from the economic gloom and doom to the sector's mid-term future, Professor Smith said that the traditional view of a hierarchical system with "the University of Poppleton near the bottom and Oxbridge at the top" was increasingly antiquated.

Instead, universities should be viewed on a horizontal spectrum, with each one excelling, or not, in specific areas such as research, business engagement or widening participation.

"Success and failure in the marketplace we are moving towards will be judged much less on a single hierarchy and much more on how you're doing in the spectrum you're in," he said.

"The critical question is: do you know which bit of the spectrum your university is in?"

He added: "Go and look at university mission statements. I did an analysis - this is slightly naughty but it's true - and found that there are 50 research-intensive universities that claim to be in the top 20, and 11 post-92 universities that claim to be the leading post-92 university in their mission statements.

"With students and their parents scrutinising the choices with an even keener eye than before, we need to know what we are good at as institutions."

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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