Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Time to push for liberal arts in the UK? On the government's latest higher education funding proposals

Yet more proposals for funding higher education have been proposed by the British Government. If there is anything that has really surprised me since moving to the UK, then it is how often ---and how radically different--- new Government proposals for funding higher education take place.

First, let me present what the BBC reports today (see here):


"[. . .] The grant letter from the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, John Denham (pictured), says public spending on higher education institutions will exceed £7bn this year.

When added to the money for student support, spending would rise by an average of 2.5% each year over the next three years, his department said.

He set out a series of priorities for the sector:
* increasing student numbers by 60,000 for those entering higher education for the first time or taking a higher level qualification by 2010/11
* fostering closer ties between universities and industry, with an aim of 15,000 more full-time students being co-funded by employers by 2010/11
* a target of 100,000 foundation degree enrolments by 2010
* more two-year compressed honours degrees
* widening participation across the country
* stronger links between universities, schools and colleges
* building on the programme of investment in research and innovation

Mr Denham said: "The government is investing more in higher education than ever before with record numbers of students going to university. By 2011, funding for higher education will have increased by over 30% in real terms since 1997, but with increased financial support comes a higher expectation on institutions to widen participation and reach out to new talent by working more closely with schools and employers. I believe the opportunities of higher education should be open to all and I am confident that by increasing the number of students in higher education we will deliver a highly skilled workforce and world class research to ensure an economically competitive UK fit for the 21st century."


Readers will know my previous comments on higher education funding proposals. Let me know respond to the latest round:

First, we must ask if there will be extra cash for new students. The present allocation of 2.5% may not be enough to cover the costs of students. According to the National Statistics, inflation is currently at (CPI) 2.1% -- but the RPI is at 4.0% (and RPIX at 3.1%). Even if not a cut, then universities have never received enough funding from the government in recent years to cover teaching provision: these losses are made up through research income. It is one thing to say that universities can admit more students (and the recent top-up fee increase to £3,000 for UK/EU students has helped). However, it is something else to offer proper funding for these new places.

Secondly, the cash seems to come from both streamlining programmes and getting funding from industry. Thus, at least 15,000 of the 60,000 new student places . . . are to funded through university and industry partnerships, and not by the government or higher fees. (This assumes that industry will have an interest in sponsoring such deals.) This move is coupled with 'streamlining' the traditional British B.A. degree from its current three year course to just two years.

This latter move may work against the former plan. Let me explain. The government wants universities to explore and develop new links with industry. The idea seems to be (a) let industry foot an increasing part of the bill for higher educaton, saving the taxpayer some cash, and (b) these new links will help foster a more employable workforce. At the same time, streamlining the B.A. degree to just two years is allegedly a move to make this more employable workforce ready for employment earlier, in two years rather than three. (And the shorter timeframe will be cheaper: this is a constant goal of a party founding itself on the mantra 'education, education, education' curiously enough.)

The problem with this plan is that I doubt shrinking further the length of a B.A. will create a better workforce. If we were serious about the needs of the workplace, then surely flexibility should be a priority. Over the last few decades in the UK, United States, and elsewhere, we have seen region after region transform their economy. My own city of Newcastle upon Tyne is no exception. About ten years ago, more coal was transported along the Tyne River than anywhere else on the planet. Today, the coal industry is virtually gone. Banking and IT form the dominant sector, with the University of Newcastle the city's largest employer. The trick is not getting degrees partly paid for by a firm in one industry or sector in as short a time as possible, but creating a more dynamic and flexible workforce that can move from sector to sector.

The solution to this problem may be to move to a liberal arts. In the UK, students normally study just one subject during their three years. Thus, most of our students in Politics classes are taking Single Honours Politics degrees. A large minority study joint degrees, such as Politics & History or Politics & Economics, where students take classes in just two subjects during their three years. Some students study in 'Combined Honours', choosing two or even three subjects. Thus, no one studies more than two or three subjects at university during their three years. This has the tremendous advantage ---which no British university has yet fully capitalized on in my knowledge--- of appealling to students who only want to study just one or two subjects....and finish in three years. The disadvantage may be that if you study just one or two subjects, then you don't study four or more subjects. Students ---as in the United States and elsewhere--- increasingly study one subject and then work in a different subject. (I am no different: I originally received a music degree, later studying philosophy and now work in a politics department.) It may be the time to begin a wider conversation about the value of introducing a strong liberal arts programme in the United Kingdom that might better prepare our students for an increasingly dynamic and everchanging workplace, rather than the government's (characteristically) shortsighted proposal that will see students more narrow than ever. In my view, this may be a mistake.

Finally, Denham expects us all to create these new forged relationships with industry, lecture in more teaching-intensive 'compressed' degree programmes, and (a) increase widening participation, (b) create stronger links with schools, and (c) generate further 'investment in research and innovation' (on 'innovation' read 'get money from industry to fund your research'). These are a lot of potentially conflicting goals to face all at once, and near impossible to achieve in a year or two given the already dramatic changes regarding student numbers. When will any of us have time to write the papers and books that count for the forthcoming REF?

In any event, I am hardly surprised to find Denham's proposals shortsighted and ill conceived, even if I might agree (in principle) with widening participation, etc. The big question to take away from all of this is whether or not it is time to push for a liberal arts curriculum in the UK. My own view is that this time is nearly here.

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