Time to push the reactive button

December 1, 1995

As we contemplate yet another deeply disappointing public expenditure settlement, university and college staff throughout the United Kingdom must be wondering just what they have to do to recreate the mood of public support which accompanied the first great expansion of higher education in the 1960s. For let us make no mistake about it; in an age where political "leadership" is largely reactive rather than visionary, it is the public mood, particularly as interpreted by the media, which influences decisions, rather than any objective analysis of the facts.

And the facts are impressive. Universities now receive only some 70 per cent of the funding which they received per student less than a decade ago, with a consequential sharp deterioration in staff-student ratios. Research income earned per head is three times higher than ten years ago, a truly remarkable performance. During my 30 years in five universities, there has never been a period in which the quality of our teaching and research has been taken so seriously, or when the secretaries, technicians and other ancillary staff who support all that we do have given so much to keep our institutions as healthy as they are. We have much to be proud of.

What has been our reward? Salaries of academic staff have risen in real terms by less than 10 per cent over the past decade, whereas the national average increase for non-manual staff has been almost 40 per cent. The resources to modernise our buildings (or in some cases even to make them conform to current legislative requirements) have been denied to us. The ruthless pressure to make further "efficiency gains" continues. A very large part of the expansion, about which the Government is so proud, has been paid for by staff and students.

How many of these facts are known by our natural constituency - our present and former students and their families, and the employers of our graduates (a constituency far larger than it has ever been in the past)? And when there is knowledge leading to concern, why is this concern rarely addressed, via the media, to the ultimate paymaster?

I can think of two main reasons why both our achievements and the problems we face are not fully recognised. The first is that universities have not learned the lesson which schools and hospital trusts have grasped, namely that alongside the competition that is built into the system (and which can be a healthy stimulus to innovation and quality) we must speak with one voice on the eye-catching headline issues. Insufficient nursery places, primary classes too big, junior doctors' hours excessive, waiting lists too long - where are our equivalents, and who articulates them incessantly?

And the second reason, not unconnected, is that we constantly act as the Treasury's agent in reducing our own unit of resource. Only capping has halted the Gadarene rush to admit full-time undergraduates - but the admission of part-timers and postgraduates, to gain a tiny (and temporary) institutional advantage at the expense of further damage to the system, continues apace.

It may be therapeutic, in the wake of the expenditure settlement, to lament our lot. But things will not improve until we stop undermining our own position, keep hammering away at all that we have achieved and at the need for a radical look at future funding arrangements, and, above all, activate our supporters to address government through the only channels to which they apparently respond.

Martin Harris is vice chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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