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January 13, 2004
The University funding crisis zzzzzzzzzz not!

The University funding crisis should interest me, but it doesn't. As Mark Holland (and I seem to be back in the land of Blogger archiving misery now, so let me tell you now that what follows is the entire posting I'm referring to) puts it:

At least in the part of the blogoshere I visit I haven't seen much comment about University top up fees. I think I know the reason. It's so bloody boring. The same goes for foundation hospitals.

He forces himself to philosophise a bit:

In an ideal, for me anyway, world the state wouldn't be involved in education or healthcare. Any steps any government, but especially a Labour one, could or would make in reform would only be a small step as far as I was concerned. But as Mao Tse Tung said, "A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step". Blimey, if Mao had the parlimentary Labour party as his followers he'd have never have left base.

Well quite, which would be because it's a journey most of them are determined not to make. That's all Mark can manage on the subject.

However, in the Telegraph today, there is some strong stuff from Tony King, my old Professor of Government at Essex (and he he reveals in this piece that he is still there and still that). I remember him as a plain speaking lecturer, and ever since I have always read or listened to whatever he has had to say whenever I encountered it. In that respect he hasn't changed either.

"Universities are underfunded." That phrase falls trippingly off the tongue of every university vice-chancellor, but what does it mean in practical terms? The truth is that most people outside universities have no idea how far the whole of British higher education has been degraded in recent years, and the reason they have no idea is that every teacher at every British university from the vice-chancellor down is engaged in a conspiracy of silence. They have no desire to engage in such a conspiracy but they have no choice, because to say publicly what is wrong at their own university is to run the risk of damaging that university, even though conditions may be worse elsewhere.

So we cover up. We moan, but we refrain from revealing a fraction of what we know. British higher education has become highly competitive. Most of us are loyal to our own university. We do not wish to harm it, let alone give a competitive advantage to other institutions. We therefore remain silent and the public are thereby deceived. Britain's universities still have areas of tremendous strength but they increasingly resemble those elegant mansions in the American South that one sees in films, with imposing facades in front but decay and ruin concealed behind.

I am one of the lucky few. I am a refugee from Oxford, having decided in the mid-1960s that Oxford was too inward-looking, insufficiently "hungry". I moved to the new University of Essex and have been there ever since. I am happy there, surrounded by first-rate colleagues, and have no intention of moving. Essex is proving more successful in maintaining standards than many universities, including more famous ones. But across the system all is not well, and it is time somebody said so. The statistics are gloomy but convey little. It is what is happening on the ground that is really disturbing.

That certainly made me want to finish the piece. I did, and as usual with King, was not disappointed. This paragraph is particularly depressing:

But there is also a third pressure, just as insidious as the pressure to teach more and more students. It is the growing pressure of what we euphemistically call "administration" but which Americans, more graphically, call "crud" the junk-work equivalent of junk mail: assessments, audits, feedback, the full apparatus of "accountability", data protection, students' rights, fear of lawsuits the familiar litany that affects every institution in Britain, universities not least. People used to suggest that teaching and research were opposed. Now the enemy of both teaching and research is bureaucratic regulation and harassment. I used to spend about five per cent of my time on administration. I reckon I now spend 30-40 per cent. Again, it is the students who are short-changed.

Which, by the way, together with all the other pressures on King and his colleagues, means that the success that Essex has had in "maintaining standards" has only been relative.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:40 PM
Category: Higher education
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