Higher education labours under 'Soviet regime'

January 15, 2009

It stops short of comparing John Denham to Joseph Stalin, but new research suggests that the Universities Secretary presides over a Whitehall regime that has much in common with the old Soviet system.

A paper suggests that the "new managerialism" of higher education shares many of the pitfalls and dysfunctions that blighted the Soviet state. The argument is made by Hugo Radice, visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds' School of Politics and International Studies, in a paper titled "Life after death? The Soviet system in British higher education".

In universities and in the Soviet Union, he writes, "however apparently rational, orderly and comprehensive the plan looked at the top of the hierarchy, in its implementation the different levels of the system often pulled in different directions, with the result that objectives could often be met only by mobilising 'off-plan' resources".

He likens the Higher Education Funding Council for England to Gosplan, the Soviet committee responsible for economic planning, and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which Mr Denham heads, to the Soviet state's political masters.

Universities are cast as Soviet ministries, and the research councils, which were established to meet government priorities rather than those chosen by academics, are compared to Soviet special innovation funds.

Mr Radice gives several detailed examples from the university sector to further his case.

The first is the internal funding model of universities, in which a "centre" allocates money to individual faculties, schools or departments and the head of each unit holds a role analogous to the Soviet enterprise director.

This set-up encourages departments to exaggerate their likely expenditure and understate their income to justify demands for extra money, to curry favour with the centre and to try to manoeuvre its own staff into senior positions.

In response, the university adopts "predictable control mechanisms", Mr Radice says, including regular cuts justified by financial forecasts that are based on estimates of low income and high spending.

Also central to the comparison is the research assessment exercise and the "opaque" process by which its review panels are formed.

Mr Radice says: "Once membership is decided, a more or less discreet process of lobbying and leaking ensues as each head of department (and key lieutenants) try to discover the panel's outlooks and inclinations."

He adds: "There is reputedly a lucrative market in consultancy for ex-panellists, who can pinpoint weaknesses and advise on presentation."

In a final lesson for higher education, the paper notes that the Soviet Union's planned economy, which eventually failed, had tended to become "stagnant and lacking in dynamism, overlaid by 'political' disintegration".

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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