Monday, 24 January 2011

Building a Smarter Future (2)

Returning to the Scottish Government's recent Green Paper (GP) on the future of higher education, today I focus on financing options. In other words, how should Scottish universities - and students - be funded in these difficult times of public spending cuts and generally tight budgets?

Unfortunately, the GP makes life difficult for itself by rejecting right at the start the most obvious and natural solution, namely a system of fees rather on the English model with nothing paid up front by the students, repayments being made after graduation, through the income tax system, on an income-contingent basis (i.e. those on low incomes pay nothing).

Setting that option aside, let us now consider what funding methods the Paper does put forward. On p.32 of GP, six options are listed and then discussed in detail; these are:
  • State retains the prime responsibility
  • State retains the prime responsibility but requires some form of graduate contribution
  • Increasing income from cross border flows of students
  • Increasing donations and philanthropic giving
  • Increasing support from business
  • Increasing efficiency
The first two are variations on a theme, the second easing in by the back door a limited form of fee system (but not payable up front). The basic philosophy, though, is that it is fundamentally up to the state to fund our universities, and the Paper does point out that Scotland's public contribution to universities, at around 1% of national income (GDP) is rather low compared to the public funding provided by major competitors. This suggests that there might be scope for a bit more public largesse to help the universities, to bring Scottish spending more into line with other countries (including England). Nice thought, but I'm afraid it's not going to work. For with budgets being cut all over the place, where is any extra money going to come from? The big trouble with budgets, sometimes forgotten, is that you can only spend the money once! It's a real shame.

The last three options all make good sense but in financial terms will achieve very little, especially if the university system needs extra money as soon as 2012. Donations are great, but they are not a well established part of the Scottish tradition. With great effort (not free, by the way) and lots of time (say 5-10 years), there is no doubt that Scottish universities could start to pull in more donations. As the culture shifted towards seeing such giving as a more normal part of the funding framework, I dare say inflows would gradually rise, so in the longer term this approach can help. But nothing much is going to happen by 2012. The same is likely to be the case for increasing support from business, but there, too, there is probably some long term potential.

As for efficiency gains, surely no one can object to those - or can they? Actually, this whole area is not as straightforward as it sounds, for over the past 20-25 years there has already been a good deal of efficiency saving in our universities. Some of this has cut out real waste, but a lot of it has also tended to worsen the student experience in various ways, such as larger class sizes, fewer and larger tutorials, fewer marked assignments, generally less personal contact between the students and academic staff.

I imagine some folk might react to my comments here by suggesting that my notion of higher education is getting rather old fashioned, with too much emphasis on the traditional 'craft' model of university education, with lots of personal contact and individual or small group tuition, and not enough attention to modern methods using IT more and more intensively. This is true, I do greatly value the traditional approach to university education, and my unhappiness at its gradual erosion is one of the reasons why I am now retired. As I see it, students learn better and have a better university experience overall if they get more personal contact - but there just aren't the resources to offer that in the way we used to.

So yes, efficiency savings can indeed save a bit of money, but we do need to take care that we protect what I see as the core values of our university system.

Up to this point we don't seem to have found much spare or additional money for our universities. That leaves the last funding option, extracting more money from cross border flows of students. Actually, what this means is simply getting more money from the English students who come to Scottish universities - for the position of EU students was discussed in my last posting (same fee as Scottish students, currently zero), and non-EU overseas students already pay high fees and have done for many years (which is why my university was pleased that Norway voted to stay out of the EU, as we have lots of Norwegian students). There is thus room for debate about what level of fee should be set for these incoming English students, but I can't see this making a big difference to the funding of many universities, especially as the Scottish Government would not like to see well qualified Scottish applicants being turned away.

Overall, then the Green Paper offers lots of funding options, most of them mildly appealing, but none of them offering a big injection of money in the near future. Hence I think this is very much a case of 'back to the drawing board' for some re-thinking about possible funding options. I certainly don't see a great new Scottish Solution in all this!

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