Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Uncertain Misery: a view from the UK

A couple of people asked if I'd write something about the funding situation in the UK, so I will try. It's early days yet: the spending review has been announced, the Browne review into student funding (set up by the last government) has reported, and the government has said that it intends to follow most of the recommendations of the Browne review. However, we really don't know how things will pan out. Also, I'm not an expert - this is merely my current understanding of the situation. No doubt ALL the politicians would tell me I was wrong...

Good news first: science research funding remains ring-fenced. My colleagues and I, at a middling kind of university which has some pockets, islands or maybe even peninsulas of research excellence, are pessimistic that the distribution mechanism will remain the same. Although the odds of being funded through the open competitions are low, at least they exist. Most of us end-users seem to think that there will be retrenchement, a greater emphasis on funding the top tier of universities and the research centres etc. After all, a visiting programme director from one of the major councils once told us "It doesn't matter because Excellent people always get to work at Excellent Institutions anyway". So much for pockets of excellence... or any understanding of the job market.

The teaching budget for universities is to be slashed by 40% nationally. And the cuts will be uneven - some 'non-priority areas' (mainly humanities and social sciences) will lose all government support. At present, universities get funding per student in one of four different categories, depending on degree programme, which aim to reflect the relative infrastructure costs (a seminar room costs less than a fully equipped and technician-ed laboratory, the argument goes), and the amount is topped up (sort of! it doesn't all come to the department, or indeed the uni) by the tuition fees of around £3000 per year. With the loss of the government share, all the costs now fall on the university. It looks like higher fees are the only practical choice.

The Browne review recommended fees of up to £12000. With the added twist that, above £6000, a rising proportion of the money has to go to the central government. So if a uni charges £7000, they don't GET £7000 to use on the student's education. The students will get automatic government loans (at lowish interest rates) for the fees, and can also get a maintenance component if necessary. They won't begin to repay until their earnings are £21000 per year, and any unpaid-off loan is written off after 30 years (currently 25 years). In theory this is supposed to encourage students to go into important but lowpaid work like nursing (increasingly a degree-requiring profession) or social work... however, with debts of £30 000 plus, graduates in low-paid jobs will struggle to get mortgages even more than they do now, especially in the expensive parts of the country. It's argued that, since £3000 per year fees did not stop people coming to university (despite many gloomy predictions), the new higher fees won't either... and of course universities, after economising and efficiency-gaining for the last ten years, can magically find more areas of waste to trim.

At present, institutions have a cap on the number of students they can take each year. THe government proposes lifting this since it will improve quality, and allow successful places to take more students whilst others are 'no longer insulated from competition'. Of course, places with a good teaching reputation usually have low staff: student ratios, so to take more students (which administrators will want, naturally) either these will have to slip or we'll need more staff... who will have to be cheap, and preferably on short term contracts to allow for year to year fluctuations (the current cap allows planning...). Sounds like adjuncts to me. Although apparently there will be no consequence for the on-going campaign to reduce the proportion of fixed-term positions in UK universities... Student choice, apparently, will drive up quality and prevent adjunctification. I assume everyone reading here understands why I am deeply sceptical about this claim?

The government is also engaging in a 'bonfire of the Quangos'. This actually seems to mean mergers... so the Quality Assurance Agency, who oversaw standards in teaching, are being merged with the Student Ombudsman and with the funding bodies and with the organisation that oversees financial quality. There's a lot of grumbling going on about this, as there are serious clashes of mission... and the government appears to be collecting up all the more independent bodies and making them junior, subsidiary parts of the one body closely controlled by political masters. They are talking about a 'national curriculum for universities', people. Hopefully this is just hot air!

At the same time, our pension scheme (one of the good things about the UK university system has always been the USS, a financially sound 'gold plated' final salary pension scheme) is being substantially modified. We pay more and get less, basically. Yet when the auditors last checked the scheme, a year or so ago, they said it was sound and changes weren't needed... we are all rather sceptical about it, and jealous of those who retired recently/will retire in the next 12 months, and therefore will be guaranteed a pension under the current terms.

At my university, we have been told that we are in a good position for at least the next year or two. I.e. until the cuts really begin to bite... Our region has been hit very hard by the recession, local government (which says it will have to lose at least 25% of staff to survive) and the university are the two major employers in the city, and basically noone is very happy. In my department, we are working on

a) making better and shinier resumes in the (faint!) hopes that one of the Excellent Universities might have an opening in the near future,
b) working out how to rapidly launch a couple of new degree programmes that will count as priority programmes and attract funding (Medicinal basketweaving with extra technology and Chinese on top, in a handy bite-sized format suitable for students who slept through school, perhaps?),
c) being told to encourage all our students who have a glimmer of ability to take out more loans and sign up for masters programmes (because those fees are higher and we get to keep them!), even if they are not suited to it
d) envying the recently retired/retiring and
e) hoping desperately that we don't develop any (more serious) long-term health problems from the stress - what they're proposing to do to universities is bad (well, Conservatives have always been afraid that the populace might learn to think for itself), but you should see what they're doing to social security for the disabled. It's criminal, especially as our Noble Leader had a disabled child himself.

At least spending time in the classroom with the 'flakes distracts us from speculating about our own futures...


  1. This is terrifying.

    Thanks for the update.

  2. I really appreciate this report. My work takes me to Britain often, so I have been watching this closely. Museums and archives seem to be poised to get shafted.

    What really shocks me is this idea that opening up to more students will allow Unis to compete with each other -- because we've all seen what good comes with "open enrollment" and the consequential debt. Christ!!

    Take measures as you must to protect yourself, but part of me is reminded of the intensive questionnaires sent to all monasteries, convents, and universities in 1535... right before the dissolutions 1536 to 1540.

  3. Wow. Not to date myself, but I was teaching in the UK during the fourth iteration of the RAEs. My department pulled a 5, but I remember how the anxiety over what a lower-than-expected ranking might mean in terms of lost resources was red-lining the whole year as we awaited the verdicts. That was also the first time that the government began discussing imposing fees as a serious possibility.

    This is much, much worse, and your account jibes perfectly with what former colleagues there have been telling me recently. I'll say to you what I say to them: sorry to hear it and welcome to the adjunct revolution! Those much maligned research fellow positions are going to look great compared to the temporary lectureships that are coming.

    And if I may be allowed a moment of sarcasm, Britain really is in Europe now, and the Tories are putting it there. This state of affairs (well, everything but the fees) has been par for the course in many continental systems for years now, especially the contingent labor as a solution to open enrollment.

  4. "... some 'non-priority areas' (mainly humanities and social sciences) will lose all government support." To be fair, what has Britain ever given to the humanities, anyway?

  5. Grumpy, where did you get the 40% figure for the cut in the teaching budget? Is that for the whole of the UK or something? The figures I've seen bandied about in the papers (which I believe apply to England and Wales) are that teaching budgets are to be cut by approximately 80%. From what I can tell, they are removing all the baseline funding across the board, just leaving the extra funding for STEM subjects (which are more expensive to teach).

    Your department seems more clued up than mine. Where I am, the ostrich approach seems ubiquitous (no CVs on the pile of printouts yet!). Me, I can see the writing on the wall.
    It's looking next to impossible that the rock they've flung in the university pond is going to effect anything other than things in the "cuts" direction, and I know what tactics they use, they cut jobs because salaries are expensive, and they put pressure on the remaining academics to deliver more in addition to higher teaching workloads caused by departed colleagues. I have already suffered serious health problems from the high workload and the efficiency measures. I'm still overladen. There's little chance of an improvement, so I've finally had to face the loss of the only career I ever wanted. Come the end of the year, I'm outa here - time to jump on the "home" brain drain train!

  6. Angry Archie: true, I forgot to even mention the RAE. Or rather the REF, which is in 2013-14, and are we under pressure for that whenever anyone remembers to go on about it! And the impact stuff...

    C: the 40% was from the BBC summary of the Spending Review. I think the 80% figure came from a pre-CSR leaked memo, possibly to make us look more favourably on the final result!

    Your summary is exactly right. Do more with less and fill out more paperwork for the managers whilst you're at it because you aren't trustworthy and we know you're up to something... There is a Dilbert cartoon where Catbert from human resources takes blood samples: if employees are healthy, they are cheating the company by not working hard enough. It'll probably happen.

    I too have a lot of health issues and overwork issues - if I COULD think of a career outside of the academy which would suit my skills I'd be going for it. But the industry linked to my science is shedding specialists like fleas as well... But for the moment I will continue to ignore as much of the evidence of doom as I can, and teach the students we have.

  7. I checked, and the 40% doesn't apply to the teaching budget, it applies to the whole of the Higher Education budget. The current figures being bandied about for the teaching budget are 75% or greater.

    Grumpy, I sympathise about the career issues. I realise I am lucky in having assorted skills that ought to be of use somewhere...

  8. Grumpy, thanks for posting this. It is thoroughly depressing: bad enough with the budget cuts, but the death-by-paperwork strategy is so utterly demoralizing above and beyond that. I wish I could do more than offering words of support (and singing along loudly with some Thatcher-era ska protest songs).


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.