Changing the Weather

In London to hear Vince Cable, the new Liberal-Conservative coalition secretary of state for business, innovation, and skills, whose responsibilities include universities, speak on the future of universities. Cable speaks well, but his message is grim for all parts of the higher-education constituency in England. Higher student contributions (though the message is softened by being presented as a graduate tax). Severe cuts in government funding to both universities and HE research councils that fund much of the research carried out in the U.K. More concentration of the remaining research funding in a few universities. Money-saving educational measures like the promotion of two year degrees and credit transfer between institutions. Universities to be allowed to go bust. And so on.

All familiar stuff to many international readers in countries affected by the financial crunch, no doubt. But three observations come to mind.

First, it is much more difficult than usual to know what is going on behind the speech. Because this is a coalition government there are some fault lines that have to be dealt with, such as the Liberal Democrats opposition to fees. Whether, for example, Cable is saying there must be a graduate tax, or that it might be possible to add elements of a graduate tax to the current fees regime, or is just playing for time is difficult to know. Whatever the case, the independent review into higher-education funding is now in a very difficult position, having been set up with a pledge by all three parties not to pre-empt its outcome.

Second, it will be interesting to see what happens when we do get to the wire. Take the case of allowing universities to go bankrupt. What happens when that university is surrounded by a necklace of coalition constituencies with MPs desperate to keep it? In normal times, there would be no contest. Now? I’m still inclined to think it will be no contest, but I am not sure. Further complexity is added by the fact that an old-style British compromise in which the failing institution is bailed out through a merger with another institution is going to look very unattractive indeed.

Third, I am struck by the lack of counterproposals. The higher-education sector in the U.K. has often proceeded through a kind of applied Kremlinology, finessing propositions from government in its favor. But this kind of approach will struggle in the current climate. What is needed is a set of comprehensive counterproposals from the sector, an alternative plan in other words. There seems to be a real hunger for new ideas from the current government but in the absence of such an alternative plan, government has no choice but to make its own way, all the time complaining (not unjustly) that the sector often seems to be a “cacophony.” An alternative plan seems a long way off at present, in other words, not least because there is very limited agreement within the sector about what to do. But if we cannot change the weather, the climate will remain cloudy with periodic storms –- and that is a message that applies around much of the world.

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