Home Trending The madness of UK higher education | Times Higher Education (THE)

The madness of UK higher education | Times Higher Education (THE)


Hazily, New Year’s Eve drifts into New Year’s Day and it’s Madness. A BBC commissioning editor with a wry sense of humour – or a past career in higher education.

It’s madness. Possibly the best, most well-regarded and efficient system of higher education across the globe. Maybe a hand on the tiller or a tweak to the carburettor, but this…

Let’s change the regulatory structure and publicly commit ourselves to welcoming – even ensuring – failure. Let’s disincentivise and discourage students to study here and let’s talk of swingeing cuts to a fee that has risen by less than 3 per cent in seven years.

It can be done, of course. Society doesn’t want it, the sector doesn’t want it – even the past three ministers for higher education don’t want it – but a one-issue prime minister seemingly does.  

Reflecting on the worst Conservative prime minister for a half-century – perhaps a coin toss between the present incumbent and Edward Heath, who lost two general elections and was ousted by Margaret Thatcher – there might be a way forward…

The Augar review leaks may deliberately exaggerate, but a one-third cut in tuition fees would destroy our current university system. 

The cheese-pare becomes the butcher’s knife. Contact is slashed, support is slashed, buildings ossify, free community use is consigned to history and, worst, we create a less well-educated society and traduce the economic integrity of those communities who depend on the higher education and student pound.  

There may be a slightly less insane alternative. Back to Ted Heath and his three-day week to conserve energy during the coal miners’ strikes – until sense prevails, the three- or four-day a week university. 

Face-to-face contact Monday to Thursday. Libraries open for 16 hours a day, not 24, with 10-hour Saturdays and – to the delight of the Day One Christian Ministries – no more than a six-hour Sunday.  

Salaries would suffer, but a 0.8 contract on existing terms may be preferable to redundancy for one-in-five, particularly as “take-home” pay would fall by a smaller percentage and any changes could be phased in across three years. 

As in parts of the American system, staff would be free to seek funded research and consultancy opportunities, additional third semester contacts or simply have more time to fulfil domestic responsibilities – or pursue their own interests. 

In a fortieths pension scheme, five years of four-fifths employment, pending the upturn in the age cohort, equates to a year’s additional service, hardly out of line with the upwardly mobile retirement age.

Maybe this is madness, too. But the wholesale dismantling of the university system threatened by every leak from No 10, HM Treasury and the Augar Review is scarier still.  

Once destroyed, perhaps the best, most well-regarded and efficient system of higher education across the globe will be lost for ever.   

The author was a vice-chancellor in the noughties.        




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