Another kick in the teeth…

I shall  attempt to beat the weather tomorrow and fly up to the North-East for Christmas break. This blog will therefore be offline for a few days (if I succeed in getting airborne). I wish I had a bit of good news to post before the holiday, but I’m afraid there’s even more bad news. Yesterday, Lord Mandelson (yes,  another unelected member of the government) has written to the Chairman  of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) outlining their budget for 2010-11.

The letter confirms £180 million in efficiency savings from the 2009 Budget and an £83 million deduction following last year’s grant letter. On top of those there’s another cut of £135 million ““the higher than expected costs of student support during the economic downturn”. Of this cut, £84 million will be switched from capital baselines, leaving a £51 million cut in teaching grant.  The letter says these savings should be delivered “in ways that minimise impact on teaching and students”, but doesn’t say who should bear the maximum impact. It also says “greater efficiency, improved collaboration and bearing down on costs will need to be combined with a commitment to protect quality and access”. In other words, all we have to do is supply a high-quality service at bargain-basement prices. Easy.

The research element of the funding is held roughly constant (at the obvious expense of teaching): “we have agreed to switch £84 million from your capital baselines, so that the reductions to the teaching grant can be held to £51 million.” Although the research funding is maintained in level, Mandelson says “securing greater economic and social impact will be important over the next year”. Not thinking in the short term, then. Next year will do.

The letter also asks HEFCE to develop proposals on:

  • Creating a more diverse higher education landscape, by increasing the range of alternatives to the full-time three year degree;
  • Maximising the impact that higher education makes to the economy by supporting the programmes with highest economic and social value;
  • Supporting research concentration to underpin our world class ranking, while continuing to support excellence in research;
  • Developing a standard set of information about higher education, so that all students can exercise informed choice about courses and institutions.

What these points really mean is:

  • Realising that slashing student support and increasing fees is going to deter many students from doing a degree, Mandy wants us to make up for it by offering more part-time degrees so students can work full-time as well as studying. Bad news for laboratory-based subjects.
  • Impact again. I’ve explained what that means already
  • In the letter, Mandelson makes clear the “Government’s presumption in favour of more, rather than less, research concentration”. Apparently they don’t care about doing the best research possible, just doing it in a smaller number of places. Idiotic. More worryingly still, Mandelson asks HEFCE to suggest how to achieve this in the 2010-11 allocations. In other words he wants HEFCE to tweak the funding  allocations arising from the 2008 RAE even further to stamp out excellence that isn’t sufficiently “concentrated”.
  • One size clearly fits all in Mandy’s Discount House of Higher Education.

Finally, Mandelson leaves us with the following message of goodwill

Over the next year, moving towards a sustainable position on pensions within the sector will be a key challenge

In other words, “I’m after your pensions too….”

Merry Christmas, Lord Mandelson. It’s a good job you’ll be out on your ear after the next election. But then I assume you’ve got a nice fat pension stashed away already.

9 Responses to “Another kick in the teeth…”

  1. He is truly the most vermicious knid.

  2. Chrisis North Says:

    I find it particularly galling that they’re going to fine Universities for over-recruitment. For years they’ve been asking Universities to train more and more students. I’m not on any admissions panels, but the way I understand the situation it’s hard not to over-recruit because such a large proportion of people get high grades at A-level.

    Two-year vocational qualifications used to exist – I believe they were called Higher National Diplomas. The government should encourage more of these, rather than asking Universities to provide shorter degree courses.

  3. telescoper Says:

    It is indeed a difficult game, betting on how many students will make the offer. Fortunately, in our case, our admissions tutor Carole is very expert at making that judgement so we are usually very close.

    So research concentrated in fewer universities and the re-introduction of two-year vocational qualifications. A little bit of history repeating itself. There used to be universities and polytechnics…

    I also think we’re going to be under pressure to teach all year round, including the summer, so that 3 years can be squeezed into two.

  4. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    It just gets worse and worse, and as far as I can tell (perhaps it was you that said this over on Andy’s blog or was it my VC, Steve Smith, in the Graun?), it’s not obvious if this is the £600M that was slated to be cut from universities and research councils in the recent PBR, or whether that cut is yet to come.

    I had a distinctly uneasy feeling that things would (continue to) get very difficult for universities, science, and astronomy in the UK and that played a significant role in my decision to jump back to the continent this summer. That said, I didn’t think it’d all come tumbling down quite so quickly.

    Yes, Mandy and the corrupt government he’s in will very likely crash and burn next spring, but I have zero hope that the alternative will be any better, unless Nick Clegg somehow shines in the election debates and people decide they want real change.

    A possibly illustrative personal anecdote for kids looking to start university next year. I went to university in autumn 1979, shortly after Thatcher was voted in after Labour had (in many people’s eyes) brought the country to its knees after the winter of discontent. I will admit with lingering shame that I was one of those voters: I was middle-class, living in the Home Counties, and so it was the “obvious” thing to do, I’m afraid. I publicly apologise for my 18 year old self.

    But it didn’t take very long to realise what a colossal mistake I (and the country) had made, and in many ways, things got much worse. Yes, the rich got rich again, but the poor … So yes, by all means, this Labour government has long since exhausted any sense of propriety (Mandy being the worst) and they should go, but I fear the next bunch will bring even further doom and gloom.

  5. Andrew Liddle Says:

    One of the depressing things about this is that up until a couple of years ago it would have been quite easy to argue that Labour had been good for UK higher education in general, and science in particular, with a healthily increasing science budget, large improvements to university infrastructure through the SRIF/CIF initiatives, and moves towards proper funding of research through FEC. A world away from the despair of the 1990s under the Conservatives. Yet in a flash it all seems to have been thrown away.


  6. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    I certainly agree with that analysis, Andrew, and that improvement in overall funding and apparently sensible attitude to research as a core part of education was at least in part what tempted me to return to the UK after 16 years abroad.

    More specifically, it was the UK joining ESO on one hand, and the RAE encouraging creative recruitment of senior people on the other (as Peter will recall 🙂 Of course, in a more mercenary way, it helped that professorial salaries had become negotiable.

    But in retrospect, I now wonder quite how much all this was just part and parcel of the debt-fuelled government spending binge that seems to have come such a spectacular cropper when the bubble was popped. Were these funding increases truly sustainable; with 20:20 hindsight, evidently not.

    And yet, much like the housing bubble (which will end, let there be no doubt), everyone stuck their head in the sand and insisted it would last forever. Indeed, conflating these two issues, I heard more than one UK astronomer telling me back in 2004 that they had earned more that year on their house than at work.

    Chickens coming home to roost, I fear.


  7. […] but I can’t really be bothered. I’m feeling somewhat drained and others (here and here) have written about it more eloquently than I think I can at the moment, and have pretty much […]

  8. […] to the theme of doom and gloom that prevailed before Christmas. In particular, you may recall that just before Christmas, Lord Mandelson wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to announce a […]

  9. […] background to all this is that the cuts announced by Lord Mandelson in December have now been officially passed on to English universities […]

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