Thursday, December 24, 2009

Future of higher education in England

A debate is raging in the newspapers, blogs and the twittersphere over in the UK about Peter Mandelson's sneaky tactic of announcing surprise extra budget cuts to English universities in a letter sent just before Christmas. The cuts are added on top of already signaled reduction in funds for research and fines for universities who over-enrolled on their programmes. Also mentioned in the letter, however, are a number of points which have even greater significance than the reduced funding levels. The suggestion that degrees could be accelerated from the already short 3 years of a typical English degree to only 2, using summer periods for example, has raised its head again. In addition, institutions have been told to respond to the cuts by reallocating resources towards subjects which have direct relevance to economic needs.

Of course much of this flies in the face of Bologna and is bound, if carried out, to reduce the international standing of English HE, providing opportunities to other countries (Scotland, Ireland?) perhaps to attract foreign students. However, the picture is likely to be a mixed one, with elite and older institutions no doubt retaining their structures but many of the less well-endowed newer institutions turning towards such training-oriented programmes. Of course the question then is what is a degree and why should quite different sets of experiences have the same designation?

In Mandelson's world, some commenters argue, there will be a separation in opportunity and provision based on socio-economic class in that those from less advantaged backgrounds will be steered towards the cheaper local institutions to take 'degrees' that are essentially employment skills training, despite the fact that unemployment is likely to remain high, and paying for the privilege through fees. For others, the issue of whether the name 'university' is appropriate in such circumstances and whether a return to 'polytechnic' is on the cards.

Fascinating discussions, unfortunately however not being discussed in the abstract but in the cold reality of cutbacks. Those university leaders who championed stronger links between universities and the government department which deals with business have now got their Christmas present, unfortunately for them its worth considerably less than they had hoped.


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