Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Not fewer students, but fewer Vice-Chancellors

Leighton Andrews, Education Minister in Wales, indicated in a speech to the Welsh Assembly earlier this week that he wants to see a shake up in higher education in the province. He wants to reduce the number of university-level institutions in Wales through a series of mergers, as a result of which he expects there to be significantly fewer universities in Wales by 2013. In other words, this process of amalgamating institutions is expected to proceed quite rapidly. However, the Minister expects that student numbers will be essentially unchanged, while there will be 'fewer Vice-Chancellors'.

Some current and former Vice-Chancellors have already welcomed the Minister's proposals, though without wishing to be too cynical, one suspects these 'welcomes' might come from institutions expected to survive the coming shake up.

More importantly, what are the likely drawbacks and benefits of this reorganisation? True, we apparently save a few VC salaries, but there must surely be more to it than that? Perhaps there are some small departments in different institutions that could deliver better programmes following a merger. And perhaps there are cost savings to be achieved through the provision of common services. I presume this is the sort of thing the Minister had in mind, but we shall have to wait and see how it all works out. As for drawbacks, some entire campuses might close, I imagine, so that for some students their local provision will no longer be available. Also, the sheer variety of HE provision across Wales might well be narrowed down, and some would certainly see that as a disadvantage of these changes.

And do these proposals for Wales have any implications for what might happen elsewhere in the UK? They are presumably being introduced now, at least in part, in anticipation of forthcoming large cuts in public spending that will follow on from the Government's recent budget announcements. Since these cuts will most likely apply across the whole country - for there's not yet any reason to expect particular regions to be especially favoured - the budetary position will be quite similar in Scotland and England to that expected in Wales. Hence higher education budgets, or the parts coming to institutions through the Funding Councils, are going to be cut back severely in the next few years, and the forthcoming rise in VAT will merely add to the pain (as most university activities are exempt from VAT, meaning that we do not pay VAT on our outputs, but we cannot reclaim the VAT paid on our inputs). At the moment it's hard to attach numbers to this miserable picture, but it would be (pleasantly) surprising if budgets were cut by less than 10% or so in due course.

So will there be fewer Vice-Chancellors (or Principals) elsewhere in the UK, or will we find other ways of adapting our institutions to meet the coming stormy conditions? For instance, we could develop activities that do not depend on Funding Council support, seek more research funding from UK, EU and commercial sources (though the market for such funds is extremely competitive), and possibly find ways of cutting core costs so that we can still deliver good programmes at a reduced per unit cost. These are all interesting possibilities, and I'm sure they will be pursued as vigorously as possible in the coming months and years. Most institutions will no doubt find ways of managing a path through this difficult period, and some will emerge all the better for it - as usual, my outlook tends to be fairly positive and optimistic. That said, it would not be surprising if we saw a few mergers and even the occasional institutional failure in the next few years. Hence in the end, I would have to say 'yes', there will be slightly fewer VCs in, say, five years' time than there are now. And while the Welsh Minister expects student numbers in Wales to be largely unchanged, I am less sure that that will be the case across the UK. More on that topic, however, in a later post.

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