Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Universities: Focus on fees wrong

Lord Browne was unsuited to head up this enquiry. Educated privately, then at Cambridge, and having spent much of his career abroad, he has no real feel for HE and the issues. It needed someone who understands the social and economic issues. We have a habit in this country of appointing this type of person into key advisory roles; Martha Lane Fox, Philip Green etc Sure enough he’s come up with a crude fiscal fix that pays scant attention to the wider issues.

Focus on fees wrong

The real story here is NOT fees. It is the redefinition of HE funding, pushing it towards a model that is better, more efficient and productive. To be fair to Browne, this is ‘progressive’ in terms of ability to pay. Remember that the majority of young people do not go to University and we need to focus more on alternatives. We also know that the current funding, post-cuts, is unsustainable and the rise is linked to the ability to pay (by the student). In crude terms the top third will pay more twice as much as the bottom third and it will come through the pay packet. Many people still don’t understand that there are still, no up front fees. But the report has a lot more around part-time students and change. There are other serious dimensions to this debate that have been ignored and Browne should have addressed them, after all, his brief was to look at the ‘funding’ of HE in general. I made many of these points in my much disputed talk at ALT, where I was accused of not putting forward alternatives. I've spent the whole of my adult life implementing the alternatives and talking about them. So here’s seven suggestions for a start:

1. Change academic year

By moving towards a full academic year, more flexible courses and access, the system will be able to cope with more students with a lower cost base. UK universities, apart from the OU and University of Buckingham, generally have three terms (all different). If we moved towards four terms (adjust and add a summer term) we’d cope with many more students and make much better use of the estate and staff.

2. More part-time, online students

Martin Bean at the OU was on the ball today pointing out that Principle number 6 is important, as 40% of students are part-time. The OU has over 250,000 students and the fastest growing part-time cohort is under 25. Under current regime, no access to student loans, you now can, free at point of entry and payback on salary threshold. This is terribly important for wider participation. If the other Universities followed suit and offered more part-time degrees along the OU model, we’d go a long way towards solving both the social and fiscal problems. More part-time, online students allows one to reduce capital expenditure and reduce the cost base.

3. Cut capital expenditure

Universities have been building too many buildings (of the wrong type) that are too empty for too long. In addition, they don’t budget well for maintenance. The occupancy rates should be recorded and funds linked to increased use. This is linked to changing the academic year to extend teaching into the long holiday periods. It supports the cost savings of with 1 & 2.

4. Cut second and third rate research

This is a big one. We have too many academics doing too much poor research. There’s been an explosion of journals, so that peer reviewed research is too easy a target (journals have increased but citations have plummeted) and an avalanche of poor research. If the research is ignored, why fund it? There’s armies of academics reading, reviewing work that is doomed to remain largely unread. There’s no added value here. There’s just too much research and not enough good teaching, too many research universities and institutes and too many grants. Cut back on this and better teaching will thrive.

5. Break link between research and teaching

Too many researchers see teaching as a secondary activity. With more resources spent on teaching and less on research (see 4) we can increase quality and attract more students with higher success rates and less dropout. In addition, we need a swing away from lectures towards more sophisticated pedagogic techniques and online learning. If you do have lectures, record them for reuse by learners.

6. Alumni targets

Universities in the UK have failed to develop a culture of alumni philanthropy, as they pay scant attention to their students while they’re at University, never mind once they’ve left. Universities generally treat students like second-class citizens. There’s a condescending whiff among many academics that leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of graduates, who leave without too much affection for the institution they attended. This isn’t helped by experiences of dull lectures, poor teaching and idiosyncratic assessment. Universities need to love their students more, increase the learning experience through better teaching and get more professional in continuing engagement with their graduates. The Americans have this sussed. I attended an Ivy league University in the US and was astonished at the level of engagement. Note how many US students are proud to wear their University sweatshirts.

7. Injection of private capital

More private Universities would take the pressure of the state funded institutions. We have made a start but far more could be done. Injections of private money have been embedded for a long time, through private funding of buildings and so on, so don’t imagine that this is in any way radical. Limkokwing University since 2007 London School of Commerce, the American InterContinental University and Amity have all set up in the UK. Foreign universities have and will set up here. We’ve arrogantly assumed that the word wants us, but that may change. US universities already have toe-holds here and with the increase in fees will become an increasingly competitive alternative.


My own view is that you simply increase tax now and make HE fees free with mean tested loans. We Baby Boomers have grabbed all the wealth and should be paying now, for their education, not dumping it on them. Our children will be still paying off their University debts when their own children will be starting University. Another problem may be collection. These debts are approaching ‘mortgage’ type levels at over £30.000, so the incentive not to pay them back is strong. I can see this leading to all sorts of wheezes to avoid payment – keeping your stated earnings low, going abroad etc.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Might be easy for millionaires to go with increasing taxes now but those of us earning 20k a year with mortgages to pay for dont have the luxury of that view. Maybe wealthy philanthropic efforts is a better solurion

5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Might be easy for millionaires to go with increasing taxes now but those of us earning 20k a year with mortgages to pay for dont have the luxury of that view. Maybe wealthy philanthropic efforts is a better solurion

5:32 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Not if the taxes are progressive - anonymous.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Francis said...

I don't know of it's an urban myth but I read many years ago that some US graduates avoided paying back their loans by declaring themselves bankrupt (which I think has less stigma attached to it over there?).

7:33 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Interesting point. Not so easy to discharge loans on a bankruptcy, I believe. However, it does the raise the interesting question of their potential risk and toxicity. About half a million go to a UK university every year. If, every year a large number of graduates hit the streets with a £30,000 plus debt, and the economy can't support the payback, then we have a crisis just like the housing crisis. All loans have inherent risk.

8:17 PM  
Anonymous Bishop Hill said...

It is amazing that Lord Browne, a businessman, didn't come up with something as simple as your idea of sweating the assets harder. Extraordinary when you think about it.

8:20 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Bishop-Hill That's right. Few businesses, when face a financial crisis, would simply say - raise the price dramatically, and get the Government to give the customers large loans to pay it off.

8:37 PM  

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