Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bhikhu Parekh on higher education funding

. . . from a speech in the House of Lords. Full text is found here. The speech:

"[. . .] My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, for securing this debate and for introducing it with the eloquence and insight that we have come to expect from him.

The Government have announced cuts amounting to about £900 million out of a total budget of £12 billion over three years, which comes to something like 8 or 9 per cent of the universities' state-funded budget. I realise that we are all passing through difficult times and that universities cannot be exempted from their share of painful cuts. At the same time, the Government need to realise that universities can go only so far and that once their international standing and their commitment to teaching and research are weakened, it will take years to rebuild them. What is therefore needed is a spirit of partnership between the Government on one hand and the universities on the other. I first want to emphasise that the universities need to do a little more than they have done and then I will concentrate on what the Government need to do in response.

Universities have already done much to diversify their sources of income. Their reliance on state funding is far less than it was about 15 years ago. They can go further, however. There could be greater involvement of the alumni, greater collaboration with our EU partners and the universities in EU member countries, and greater collaboration with universities in the United States and developing countries. The universities can also do much to rationalise their academic offerings and the way in which courses are delivered. Again, they have done much over the past 15 to 20 years, but there is still room for improvement. They can play to their strengths and specialise in certain areas rather than duplicate what neighbouring universities do. They can also put on flexible courses and offer work-based learning so that students do not have to travel to the campus. They can work closely with industry and business and share the costs of education with these institutions. In some cases, technology can be more widely used and we can save on academic labour power. Therefore, I think that there is room for improvement on the part of universities and it would be wrong for us academics to deny that universities, too, must accept their share of the burden.

The Government need to bear in mind three important principles. They must realise that, while it is right to encourage universities to find research money elsewhere, that is not possible in many areas, such as the arts, the humanities and some social sciences. There is therefore a danger that the universities might neglect these areas because money is not available and concentrate entirely on sciences and technology. I think that the Government are, wittingly or unwittingly, in danger of giving a technocratic bias to our university education, which would be disastrous. A university is not simply a place for science and technology; it is the custodian of our civilisation and the values that the country stands for and it cannot ignore its role in those areas. If we are not careful, we might end up in a funny kind of way reversing what Margaret Thatcher did. She turned polytechnics into universities and, if we are not careful, we might end up turning all or most of our universities into polytechnics, which would be just as great a mistake.

As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, pointed out, in a knowledge-based and highly competitive world the Government need to make sure that our institutions of higher education are among the best in the world. Our universities have a lot to be proud of. They are the second most popular destination for overseas students. They get the second highest number of Nobel prizes and other forms of international recognition. They contribute £33.4 billion to the economy, which is 2.3 per cent of GDP. However, other countries are beginning to catch up with us and are even overtaking us. France has decided to contribute €11 billion to higher education. Germany has decided to contribute €18 billion to world-class research institutions, alongside university education. President Obama has committed an additional sum of $20 billion for federal education spending. It is important to bear in mind the fact that the French and German money is not just going to science and technology; it is also going to centres of migration studies, cultural studies, studies of long-term economic and political trends and so on.

It is important that the Government should constantly monitor how we are competing with other countries and what they are doing that we are not doing. They should also bear in mind the fact that, beyond a certain point, university education should be a protected sphere in exactly the same way as the health service, schools and the police are. Unless we recognise that, we are in danger of destroying great institutions that we have taken hundreds of years to build. [. . .]."

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