'Wisdom of crowds' offers novel ways out of cash crisis

Public's cost-saving ideas include Facebook peer review and teaching in shifts. Simon Baker reports

September 2, 2010

Running university terms in shifts and replacing the research excellence framework with a Facebook poll are some of the ideas submitted as part of the government's online appeal for cost-saving ideas.

More predictable proposals posted to the Treasury's Spending Challenge website include abolishing quangos and the quality assurance regime and merging universities.

The Treasury has invited the public to vote on the 44,000 ideas it received for cutting spending across Whitehall. It hopes to feed some of them into October's Comprehensive Spending Review, which is aiming for cuts of about 25 per cent in most departments.

About 300 of the anonymous submissions mention universities, with many focusing on bureaucracy. A popular target is the planned REF, which is criticised for its "document-heavy" burden on universities and multimillion-pound cost. One proposal suggests that the exercise will serve little purpose other than confirming that "Oxford and Cambridge are pretty good".

Another writes: "This is an enormously expensive activity that skews research towards material that can be completed quickly and that will appeal to the current consensus."

Submissions on the REF are short on alternatives, although one person suggests using the "wisdom of crowds" via a Facebook poll allowing academics to vote for the top 10 institutions in their discipline.

"It would exploit 'peer review' expertise in a quite literal sense and would generate league tables that could then be used to allocate research funding across the sector," the entry claims.

Other procedures under attack include the National Student Survey - "a methodologically unsound and expensive exercise in reputation management", says one writer - and quality assurance, which, it is suggested, "takes up vast amounts of academics' time, is self-perpetuating and almost entirely redundant".

The Quality Assurance Agency is targeted by many for the chop, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Higher Education Academy also draw flak.

Reform of the overall funding system is also discussed, with one contributor calling for a "one-off" tax levied on anyone educated in the UK and earning more than £100,000, with the money directly subsidising tuition fees. Another suggests putting some National Lottery money into a central pot - "a bit like a university bank" - that the sector can draw on in times of hardship.

Others focus on efficiency. One proposes doubling the student intake within a single year by teaching a second set of entrants while the first group is on holiday. Another entry calls for university funding to be tied to institutions that are most effective at cutting costs.

Middle managers and vice-chancellors also come under scrutiny, particularly over pay, while more nuanced proposals include a call for universities to share services and for the tax regime to be simplified.

But not everything revolves around efficiency and cost-cutting: one contributor's bright idea is to "ensure that degrees are of suitable quality and need", while another says that cuts should fall on local government before universities.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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