For a variety of reasons, my time has been quite limited the past three months or so. Long story short, the job has been atypically demanding (above average teaching load, heavy research hits this term, my university is in a state of permanent revolution: dropping majors, designing new majors, re-desinging majors, dropping those majors; moving departments here, there, and elsewhere; branding, rebranding, unbranding; dropping faculties, merging faculties — the latter just happened again yesterday –it makes for an inefficient enterprise), I’m a single dad at weekends, I’ve chosen to put my house on the market in the worst context outside of Ireland, and I’m on the job market at the worst time since . . . well, you get the idea.
Whining aside, I’m finally coming up for air and for better or worse should be a more regular “feature” on LGM again.
As readers are likely aware, the UK coalition government has dramatically cut spending across the board. From Defence, where the HMS Ark Royal (and associated Harrier wing) is facing imminent retirement, to Education. Regarding Education, central government funding for universities is to be somewhat slashed. I’m not overstating the case: on average, it’s an 80% reduction in the teaching grant paid by the central government per student. For the lucky disciplines in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, it’s a mere 100% cut. The plan put forth by the government is to make this up by increasing tuition anywhere from 200% to 300%.
Students, shockingly, aren’t terribly happy about this. At the University of Plymouth, they have occupied a classroom for the past two weeks. It’s a largely insignificant teaching space (I’ve taught two or three classes in that room in the past few years), but it’s in a highly visible location in a relatively new, signature building. It’s not quite Berkeley in the 1960s, but it’s as close as Plymouth can get.
The vote in Parliament on these proposals is due today. It will likely pass, and that the operative word is likely is a large enough hint at the nature of the controversy. This has several possible ramifications. First, it threatens to divide the coalition; specifically, the junior partner. Second, it can’t at all help the Liberal Democrats, who have sunk to historic polling depths. But more critically, from my point of view, it will radically alter higher education in England (not necessarily Scotland or Wales, devolution has put paid to that.)
Aside from the obvious, that there will be fewer students attending university (200% to 300% tuition increases will not spur interest, oddly enough), what students will choose to study will also be altered. One of the many differences between US and British higher education is that here in the UK prospective students apply to degree programs, not universities. They’ve chosen their major from day one. At the University of Plymouth, Politics students pretty much take what I tell them to, as I largely designed the program. With the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences receiving unfortunate extra attention, it’s in the interests of universities to drop those programs (and the associated labor costs) and concentrate their offering on programs that bring in marginally extra revenue. I suspect that in the next five to ten years, these disciplines will be the purview of elite universities, while second- and third-tier universities will concentrate on vocational or professional degrees. Those that survive, that is.
Here at my fine enterprising university, things are possibly grim. Some colleagues in my department are optimistic, which is good, and I’d love to have some of the kool-aid they’re drinking. The union meeting I attended last week paints a less rosy portrait. I’d supply some figures from the email I sent my department following the union meeting, but the email server is down on campus at the moment (perhaps the cuts are already hitting?) From memory, over the last two years “academic staff” has decreased by 9%, student numbers have increased an equally impressive 9% (literally doing more with less), labor costs as a percentage of turnover has been reduced from 59% to 53%, yet the Vice Chancellor’s salary has increased an “obscene” (to quote the local union branch chair) 28%. (She’s on around £280,000 a year). That increase alone could fund two new junior professor positions (or she could buy my house with eight months’ salary alone). Of course, the plan from the high command is to drastically cut labor costs further, and unlike 2008, they’re targeting entire departments.
From an American perspective, students taking to the streets over the government having the temerity to charge a real tuition is quaint. However, before 1997 (?) universities were free, and since 2006 tuition has been set at only £3000 per year. The culture here is for a cheap, highly subsidized university education. An irony is that while the higher education sector will remain state run and controlled, the government will be funding anywhere from 80% to 100% less in supporting these institutions. Universities will receive little money from the state, yet the tuition that they can charge is regulated by the state (as is the curriculum to a loose degree). The current arrangement is little different from my experience in state universities in the US, where in state students were subsidized by the state legislature to the tune of 90%. Take that away, every student is paying out-of-state tuition.
In addition to a diminishing role for the arts, humanities, and social sciences in UK Ltd., more British students will be looking to the United States for their university education, as it’s suddenly become more competitive on price (and frankly, is a superior education in my opinion, but what do I know?) Nick Clegg will be out of a job come 2015 if not sooner, along with a lot of my less ‘academically mobile’ colleagues.