Too important to act rashly

Why did the sector capitulate so readily to coalition policies without considering long-term impact? asks John Coyne

January 20, 2011

What kind of higher education do we want in the UK? We know that we need to address government debt in order to plot a path to economic recovery, but we also need to create a university system to best serve the future.

The first matter is essentially a short-term phenomenon - recessions come and go (my professional career has already seen four). Universities, on the other hand, are engaged with the very long term. Our oldest have existed for 800 years; even my "new" university has a record of service to our city spanning more than 150 years.

The coalition government has decided to cut 40 per cent from the higher education budget and introduce tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year. The effects of these changes will be felt for many years. Is it right to make a long-term decision of such fundamental significance to address a relatively short-term issue? Or is the short-term issue simply the pretext for the fundamental shift in direction that we are currently embarking upon? Let us not underestimate the significance of that decision. The state is disinvesting in such a large part of higher education that it is a shift that goes far beyond simple rebalancing.

New governments always face a greater number of difficult jobs than easy ones, and there is always a temptation to look for rapid solutions to at least some of the issues confronting them. But what was it, I wonder, that led the coalition government to decide to "resolve" the issue of higher education so quickly. And what was it that allowed us as a sector to roll over so quickly as it did so?

What other issues remain to be tackled? One challenge that appears to be in the "too hard to tackle" box is investment bankers' bonuses. The recent Higher Education Policy Institute seminar, Higher Education in the Age of Austerity, quite by chance took place on the day that just one of our banks in just one of its divisions (the one that lost nearly £700 million) was about to approve bonus payments that in one year would see a few thousand people share a sum equivalent to twice the funding the sector will lose over four years.

What is the implied value judgement that sits behind this decision? What is it telling us about the inherent value seen in the one activity and not in the other in its contribution to the society and economy we are trying to build? Which risks are worth taking and which aren't?

In this regard, do we have ourselves to blame? Have we been complacent in assuming that all the good things that the sector contributes are as well understood as they should be? We need to ensure that the benefits that higher education brings to the economy and society are shouted loud and often.

As a sector we have much to be proud of and much worth fighting for. Many more students now see the value of higher education, and the scientific endeavour and innovation that springs from the sector is a key technological driver of our knowledge economy.

We are a major export earner, we are major employers, and in most major cities and towns the university is central to the identity of the city and its heartbeat.

We need to speak as a sector that promotes what we all do, and not lamely acquiesce in the expedient accommodation of whatever policy comes along. A vibrant and diverse sector delivering excellence is what will contribute massively to the kind of society I want my grandchildren to grow up in, and it is something that is worth our government investing in.

This lesson is well understood by the developed economies with which we compete and the developing economies with which we are encouraged to trade. We now stand with Romania and have the dubious honour of being the only Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development country reducing direct investment in higher education.

My fear is not for the current age of austerity but that we will end up post recession, delivering austere higher education in an age of prosperity.

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