Britain’s Higher Education system is in a total mess, but the causes are particular as well as general. It is sometimes easy to gesture at broad trends as explaining everything, for instance governments’ hostility to so-called “low value” degrees or falling public support for universities, both phenomena being felt across the English-speaking world. The immediate dynamics undermining British Higher Education, particularly in England, are however rather more pointed and specific.
The main problem is quite simple: lack of money. Undergraduate tuition fees for English students in England have not risen since 2017 (they are fixed at £9,250), and have not risen much at all since they were brought in at £9,000 for the 2012/13 academic year. Core teaching income has therefore fallen by a third (the situation in the rest of the United Kingdom is no better). As income declines, so must the quantity and quality of provision fall, a situation which has as much to do with basic arithmetic as political opinion.
Higher Education’s senior leadership teams are furthermore wedded to three deeply misguided ideas that have been central to the management of this decline – concepts that have left universities trapped inside a preposterous simulacrum of professional capitalism, mimicking a hardball act that hasn’t risen high in the private sector since the late 1980s, and probably didn’t amount to much even then.
The first is that the university’s financial health or otherwise should not be considered as a whole, but broken down into very small financial units. The second is that every subject area must return a profit to the centre. And the third is that managers must manage, making the big calls without concert or co-operation from the workforce: a concept that didn’t save shipbuilding, the National Coal Board or Britain’s print newspaper industry, and if nothing changes won’t save universities either.
In the service of these three idols, universities have been gradually salami slicing “low earning” Schools and Departments, running down and then chopping out bits of their own corporate body that make the lowest contributions to central coffers. As costs rise generally, so the logic goes, different faculties must pay more and more to keep the whole thing going. Falling behind is falling down.
The problems with that are obvious: for one thing, if you gradually reduce the number of financial units bearing the central cost of the institution, you can get into a death spiral in which the remaining departments have to continuously ratchet up their contributions. Where once costs were spread out, now they are concentrated. Where once the burden was shared, now it is loaded higher and higher – and onto fewer backs.
It gets worse. Since this gradual run-down can mean culling proportionately underperforming chunks of the institution that are breaking even or even returning a small surplus, bit by bit universities can shut off sources of absolute income, reducing their access to actual cash. So might a dying man cut off his limbs when the problem is with his heart – or his diet.
None of these logical fallacies seem to matter much. A new band of cutter-downers and chopper-uppers has emerged to rummage through Higher Education as if it were an assortment of costs not benefits, dedicated to maintaining universities’ existence at the cost of many fundamentals that made them a university in the first place. All the while, the glaring gap between the outlook and values of staff and their actually-existing employers yawns wider.
This process is now speeding up, and is likely to accelerate rapidly. The sector’s physical environment has been rebuilt on a very large scale over the last decade or two, as universities replaced ageing buildings and took advantage of low interest rates. But as inflation has risen along with the cost of debt service, that puts some of them in a very parlous position. If debt rises and income declines too much, all you have is the confidence of your lenders, in the shape of the banks. The Northern Rock and RBS debacles are case studies of how quickly trust can run out.
That puts the onus on university managers to show that they can cover outgoings, at almost any cost. One source of easy income has been Humanities students, for instance History undergraduates, who don’t cost very much to teach but whose numbers are holding up – at least when compared to those people who want to study English or Modern Languages.
Get them in, buying them cheap and stacking them high, and you can subsidise more expensive science subjects – especially if you are a prestigious famous university who can compromise on entrance standards a bit, without worrying too much about the effect “lower” down the traditional chain of university league tables.
But there’s a big problem for what should be seen, and is very much not seen, as the Higher Education system overall. Universities who can’t compete with a famous name or a long tradition face obliteration in these markets, a development that is perhaps a matter of regret for colleagues forced onto teaching treadmills pushing everyone through near the “top,” but which they cannot do much about.
That is where the Humanities jobs are being lost, and will be lost hand over fist in the coming few years if nothing is done. In this “squeezed middle,” a very large proportion of jobs that can be broadly defined as encompassing British Studies will be bulldozed. After History cuts at the University of East Anglia, the University of Kent, Chichester, Goldsmiths, Brighton University, Roehampton and others will come at least another twenty or thirty Schools and Departments ripe for downsizing in History alone.
There seems little prospect that this process can be completely reversed. An incoming Labour government will have far more pressing problems on its hands than the crisis in universities, unless and until one of them goes spectacularly bust. Money will be in harshly short supply, and in a situation where in parts the National Health Service is barely clinging to functionality and Britain’s rail network seems to be descending into chaos, very little of it will come the way of beleaguered lecturers and professors.
Nor will Labour likely challenge the accounting and governance issues that plague universities – the idea that they must all be set at each other’s throats in a zero-sum struggle for student numbers, or that their shape and even their existence should be left to the vagaries of fluctuating recruitment rather than seen as part of wider urban, regional and economic policy. The recent election of a Labour government in Australia has not led to a thoroughgoing u-turn in the logic and direction of the sector’s governing ideas.
What we might expect instead is a little bit more money, enough to keep the overall show on the road, perhaps the return of some order in the recruitment system to steady the ship, and a number of mergers and “reorganisations” that further slim down British Higher Education. Given how far universities’ home income has fallen, the burden of their debt and narrowing room for manoeuvre, outside a very small number of “elite” institutions the outlook for British Studies on the Atlantic’s eastern edge is hovering between poor and grim.
Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books and articles about contemporary Britain, including most recently The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He is the Principal Investigator in the AHRC-funded project "In All Our Footsteps: Tracking, Mapping and Experiencing Rights of Way in Post-War Britain," and is currently finishing a book about the domestic policies of the Blair governments of 1997-2007.
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