Inside Story

The writing on the wall

The global financial crisis has reached British universities, writes Frank Bongiorno in London

Frank Bongiorno 18 March 2010 2057 words

Graduation at Oxford University. Martin Griffiths/Flickr

THE BANKS might be coming out of the downturn – they’re certainly paying out hefty bonuses – but the effects of the global financial crisis are only beginning to be felt in British universities. Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, announced cuts of £398 million for 2010–11 just before Christmas. Some universities have already responded by moving to sack staff – my own university, King’s College London, among them.

The staff union at King’s believes over 200 posts are at risk; the School of Arts and Humanities, in a document circulated among staff a few weeks ago, foreshadowed twenty-two forced redundancies, which amounts to 10 per cent of staff. All members of the school will need to fill out a form making an application to continue in employment. The staff union is balloting its members on industrial action; I was interrupted while writing this piece by a phone call from a union rep asking if I’d voted. Other universities are experiencing similar convulsions; some are also balloting members on strike action.

The same document that carried the glad tidings already mentioned also announced that the School of Arts and Humanities would be “disinvesting... from areas that are at sub-critical level with no realistic prospect of extra investment.” Universities are a fruitful source of neologisms – I once had a couple of philosopher colleagues who coined the word “lucrepath” for an individual consumed by the desire for money – so I decided to look up “disinvestment.” To be fair, I did find it in an electronic version of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, where it is defined as to “withdraw or reduce an investment.” But Wikipedia was more specific, telling me that the term came into use in the 1980s to refer to “a concerted economic boycott, with specific emphasis on liquidating stock, to pressure a government, industry, or company towards a change in policy, or in the case of governments, even regime change.” The term was often applied to South Africa’s apartheid regime. Perhaps my college was really engaged in an elaborate piece of political activism, a cunning plan to overthrow the Brownite tyranny?

Like much of the university sector in Britain, it has certainly gone out of its way to lay blame for the current situation at the feet of the government. Letters signed by vice-chancellors have appeared in the press pointing to the dire consequences for both British civilisation and economic prosperity if universities are starved of money. But to accept the reasoning that it’s all the government’s fault you would also need to accept that university administrators were notably aloof from the spending spree in which so many others with access to ready cash engaged in happier times.

“Disinvestment” is now the zeitgeist in British universities. So at King’s, the Professor of Palaeography would have to go, as would two academics in the field of computational linguistics. All up, the School of Arts and Humanities at King’s proclaimed eleven positions to be immediately at risk.

I’m uncertain whether academic administrators learn from their mistakes, but I think one lesson everyone has learned from this business is that if you wish to sack twenty-two staff, beginning with the Professor of Palaeography is not a wise move. Palaeography, in case you were wondering, is the study of old writing. Within days, it seemed that there wasn’t a classicist or medievalist in the world who hadn’t heard about the plans for an academic cull. Type the words “Palaeography” and “King’s” into Google and you’ll be immediately directed to dozens of sites where you can sign online petitions, contribute to a Facebook profile called “Save Palaeography at King’s,” or add to the blogosphere your reflections on this latest evidence of the rise of barbarism. Similarly, the fate of the computational linguists has aroused protests from professional associations and even a letter of protest from Harvard University’s Steven Pinker, the eminent psychologist. I still haven’t quite worked out what computational linguists do, but we gather from Professor Pinker and others that it’s important work, and that the targets are respected in their field.

In the age of the internet, the protesters were able to move much more rapidly than the university management which, even allowing for the resilience of Thatcherite labour law, has to conduct ninety days of consultation before doing its worst. And by that time, even its worst will have been made to look a whole lot worse again. Journalists who write about universities, too, need a peg on which to hang a story. A headline such as “University to sack twenty-two humanities academics” might warrant a few lines on page nineteen in a quality broadsheet, and perhaps cause a thoroughly committed member of the chattering classes to tut-tut momentarily about the sad state of the world over their evening red. But “Writing off the UK’s last palaeographer” appeals to quite a different instinct, and perhaps even a different constituency. It’s not quite up there with the threat to the panda bear or the blue whale but it raises questions about the direction of British universities that the “mere” sacking of twenty-two staff cannot.

The university sector here, like much of the rest of the country, is in a state of bewilderment about where to go next, now that the Britain that Maggie and Tony made appears to be fraying at the edges. Its world-class universities have been as significant to the face the country likes to show the rest of the world as its world-class financial sector. Additionally, and unlike their European counterparts where university tuition often remains free, they make a lot of money flogging courses to foreigners.

Yet there’s also, even perhaps in Oxbridge, a feeling that unless British universities do things differently, they’re going to fall behind their major competitors in the United States. Oxford University’s chancellor, Lord Patten, is arguing that universities should be allowed to set their own fees in exchange for surrendering part of their government grant. British universities, moreover, cannot pay the kinds of salaries offered in the top Ivy League institutions; and in cities such as London with a challenging cost of living, the same problem that is hampering student recruitment is also undermining universities’ ability to attract and retain top staff.

British universities demand a great deal of administrative labour from their academics; quite a few of the functions that in Australian universities would be performed by administrators remain within the bailiwick of academic staff. And many institutions, including the ancient ones, also tend to demand a great deal of face-to-face undergraduate teaching and pastoral care. The teaching year is shorter than in Australia – by about six weeks – but perhaps a little more intense.

Research opportunities are probably better than in Australia, especially in the humanities. It’s possible over here to apply to reputable funding bodies for £15,000 – which is often enough for a substantial project in a humanities discipline – whereas in Australia it often seems that unless you’re applying for ten times that amount you’re not really in the game. The absurd confusion of inputs and outputs, of grants and publications, that has disfigured Australia’s research culture for at least a generation is not quite so strong here; nor does the “we don’t read ’em we just count ’em” approach to publication rule the roost. Quality rather than mere quantity has for some time been central to research assessment in Britain. The pressure to produce big and important projects is possibly greater than in Australia, but the best universities at least realise that unless they provide reasonable opportunities for staff to do so, their own financial position will be steadily undermined. A department’s performance in the Research Assessment Exercise (now called the Research Excellence Framework) every five or so years has a major impact on its future financial position. Successful departments plan their submissions carefully, years ahead of the census date.

Yet there’s also much interest in Britain in Australian developments. The indebtedness of the British system of student fees to Australia’s Higher Education Contribution Scheme, or HECS, is a well-known example, but Australia’s recent move towards the assessment of research impact has attracted some notice over here. So has the “Melbourne Model” – the University of Melbourne’s move towards a “broad” undergraduate education, followed by a second, more specialised and professionally orientated postgraduate degree. When Melbourne’s vice-chancellor, Glyn Davis, gave a public lecture at King’s in early 2009, there was considerable interest among senior university administrators, as well as some press coverage.

The same forces that have transformed tertiary education in Australia since the Dawkins revolution are doing their work here. At the same time as Mandelson announced swingeing cuts to the sector, he also foreshadowed government support for the idea of two-year degrees. Universities will also have to do more to show that they are attracting a diverse intake, as well as producing the kind of graduates that employers want and need – or perhaps will want and need when they’re hiring again. But the issue of access is particularly sensitive because there is also a shortage of university places, probably generated in part by high unemployment, which has prompted many who might otherwise have entered the labour market to apply for tertiary study. This week the Times reported that at least 50,000 more students with good grades are likely to miss out on a place this autumn than last year.

One interpretation of recent government announcements telling universities to lift their game is that they foreshadow students being charged higher fees, an expedient that will also be familiar from Australian experience. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have been trying to do the impossible: to exude financial rectitude while also promising to create more tertiary places. But even their proposal for an extra 10,000 places seems modest compared with the size of the shortfall. In reality, I doubt whether there would be an academic or student in Britain who believes that a Tory government would fix the sector’s problems. Faced with a choice between cutting the National Health Service, which a Conservative government is in any event committed not to do, or demanding “efficiencies” of the universities, it isn’t difficult to predict which way things will go. As in Australia after the Howard government had come to power with a large majority, tertiary education is a fairly soft target. The sector’s best hope may well be a timid minority government of either persuasion, seeking to hold power in a hung parliament.

Britain has a large public debt, and for a particular sector to argue that it should be immune from cuts because of its intrinsic importance can seem like special pleading. I doubt whether it helps when vice-chancellors go into print, as several did in a recent letter, with the hyperbole that government policy will bring to its knees a world-class system built up over 800 years. Yet because the British universities have been fairly buoyant for some years, I sense that many senior and middle managers lack serious experience in crisis management. Having accepted so much of the logic of the market while times were good, they now fall back on a public language of tradition, culture, civilisation and the common good when the economic system is no longer capable of delivering the resources they need. And they combine this largely ineffective public advocacy with a language of managerialism and an encouragement of individual competition in their more private dealings with their own staff – as they must to justify sacking them.

It’s probably unfair to call this opportunism. It’s perhaps rather the paradox of a country in which the drive to modernisation always seems hedged with half-articulated reservations and qualifications. •