Friday, 4 April 2014

Risky business in HE

Here's a song that's been in my head for a couple of weeks: Snowbird's 'I Heard The Owl Call My Name'. Snowbird is Stephanie Dosen and Simon Raymonde, formerly of the Cocteau Twins, plus people from Radiohead, Lanterns on the Lake and others. This track's the album highlight for me, especially when I'm in the mood for something ethereal.

And if you liked that, you should go back to the Cocteau's:

then to This Mortal Coil, Slowdive and Galaxie 500. Then Hydroplane and The Paradise Motel. And of course Mazzy Star.

I'm in need of ethereality. I'm marking essays and reading drafts in a bit of a stupor. I was up at 5.30 a.m. yesterday for a seminar in London on Leadership in Higher Education. Amongst the attendees was the distinguished and slightly eccentric Channel 4 News reporter Michael Crick, who is a governor of Manchester University. The morning session was on risk, reputation and positioning, the afternoon one covering governors' legal position and presenting case studies of well-known HE disasters. At one point, the discussion moved into naming institutions thought likely to be vulnerable to financial and policy shocks, which I didn't think was particularly professional (though I was relieved that my own dear university wasn't on the list). One presentation discussed HE financing and planning, including a ranked chart of universities' financial stability. We're on the 'good' end of the list, which was reassuring.

What really set the room alight was the discussion of government HE policy. One finance director observed that the £9000 fee system was 'good for universities, bad for the country' which was a little cynical, but most of thought that the worst aspect was the government's utter incompetence. It's not just that their ideas are bad: it's that they have no ideas, and seem to be making it up as they go along. No university can plan for the long term when HE policy seems to lurch from one wheeze to another. Speaking of which, I still haven't had a letter from Paul Uppal explaining how student finance will work after 2016: he said weeks ago that he wasn't in a position to do so but would get back to me when he could. Following yesterday's exploration, I'm now of the opinion that nobody at BIS has a clue.

This isn't just an anti-Tory thing: while Labour are making voter-friendly noises about reducing fees, there's no clarity about the funding model. One speaker made the point that student finance is now simply a matter of accounting tricks: the £9k loan model moves HE funding off the government books, reducing the deficit ever so slightly. That's how important education is to this country.

Personally, I'm old-fashioned enough to support a really simple HE funding model. The government gives the universities a big chunk of taxpayers' cash, enough to cover good teaching, small classes and excellent research. Students graduate and use their degrees to get good jobs. Some will earn enough to pay higher taxes, funding subsequent students. Others will get socially-useful jobs which aren't paid so well (teaching, social work etc) and won't pay much back. Some won't get jobs, in which case the state should look at its economic policies better. Simple, huh? Alternatively, we could take the £100bn earmarked for nuclear weapons over the next 20 years and spend that on education.

We also discussed reputational risks to universities. London Met's secretary discussed her university's  catastrophic loss of Tier 4 visa 'highly-trusted' status, which essentially suspended their international student recruitment, and the furore over their abandonment of the Women's Library. While I suspect that her account is rather rose-tinted, it was shocking to hear of other universities sending men down to LMU's campus with sandwich boards and application forms. What's clear is that many universities have expanded abroad too hastily, while overseas recruitment processes are open to abuse and are very hard to police.

One of the most interesting and sobering sessions was about legal liability and duties. The bottom line for governors is that if you ask enough questions, come to reasonable conclusions (even if wrong) and act in good faith, we're fairly safe from becoming personally liable for (e.g.) institutional collapse. What was far more interesting was the exploration of the laws covering discrimination, our duties towards students and staff with mental health issues and equality and diversity. It was pretty shocking to see cold figures. The older and more senior HE staff are, the more likely they are to be white and male. We're far whiter than our student intake: clearly there's a problem with recruiting ethnic minority PhD students and staff. In English, the students are overwhelmingly female, yet the teaching staff is roughly equal.

It concerns me, too, that very few of us sound like our students: we're largely not from the area and I worry that they'll think academia isn't for them. I've been advocating a talent-spotting postgraduate funding scheme because I'm sick of watching first-class students graduate into bar-work or non-graduate employment because they don't have the family resources or social capital that more middle-class students can access. I really don't want research and academia to become the preserve of rich kids or the Russell Group universities with deep pockets. That way lies ossification and the self-perpetuating mistakes that led, for example, to the economic crash which was aided by the failure of economic departments to ask critical questions because they were too invested in the status quo.

But I can sense a rant coming on, so I'm going to stop. These essays won't mark themselves…

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