Is the sun really setting on British higher education?

One cannot help but be impressed with the way in which Britain’s university sector defends its corner. Take, for example, the article in yesterday’s Guardian by Russell Group chairman Michael Arthur and director general Wendy Platt. The Russell Group represents the UK’s 20 leading research-led universities.

The BBC describes as “strongly worded” and “a dire warning” Arthur and Platt’s response to the government’s plan to cut more than £900m from university funding in England over the next three years, as part of its efforts to balance the state books.

Note that the proposed cuts apply to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which is responsible for buildings, equipment and teaching, among other things. The cuts do not affect the research councils, which cover the bulk of research costs, leaving the salaries of research-active academics (but not research fellows, postdocs and students) to be paid from the HEFCE pot. The national governments of Wales and Scotland are responsible for their own universities.

The Russell Group’s robust media campaign is indeed strongly worded, and in their article Arthur and Platt make a few good points. At the same time, however, the intervention reeks of hyperbole (e.g., universities will be “brought to their knees”, and face “meltdown”), and, in lauding the efforts of France and Germany to bolster their higher education sectors, it fails to make a proper distinction between universities as teaching bodies and research centres.

As Arthur and Platt point out, the French are to invest €11bn in higher education, as part of a wider €35bn spending plan. The centre-right French government will have to borrow a huge amount to implement this policy, and has come in for some sharp criticism from the opposition Socialists for “adding to uncontrolled debt”. Germany is to pump €18bn into university research and teaching over the next 10 years, and the initial boost is a modest €2.7bn in additional research funding.

There are a number of areas in which one can justifiably criticise the British government’s policies in higher education, but over the past decade or so we have seen a significant real-terms increase in research funding. The situation was bleak when I entered the research world back in 1993, with contract research staff and PhD students on almost poverty wages. Since then there has been a big improvement in the state of research in the natural sciences, though unfortunately the arts and humanities have suffered.

Where New Labour failed was in pushing through Tony Blair’s plan to have 50% of school leavers go on to university – a policy enthusiastically supported by the higher education lobby. Here one should question the wisdom of encouraging the old polytechnics, which provided a more vocational form of higher education, to become chartered universities. Do we really need so many academic university graduates? What good does the possession of a colourful but possibly worthless degree certificate, and, in the case of students from poorer backgrounds, massive financial debt, do them as individuals? Not a lot, from what I can see.

Like Arthur and Platt I am concerned about the future of Britain’s universities, but we should keep things in perspective, and not go over the top in our criticism of government policy. Cutting HEFCE funding will have an impact on universities as teaching institutions, but will the cuts bring the “gold standard” (such a tired and clichéd term) of British higher education to one of “silver, bronze or worse”? I hardly think so.

Please, enough of this silly rhetorical nonsense. Let’s have a proper debate about the future of higher education in Britain.