Saturday, 30 October 2010

ConDem mess in the Universities

It’s been pointed out in this space before that the present ConDem government seem not to have thought through any of their policies. And it goes on.

To give IDS the benefit of the doubt, I accept that he thought long and hard about his reforms. However the way Cameron has implemented some aspects of them has more to do with news capture than anything else. Housing benefit and child benefit policies are both slowly unravelling to the point of fudging and tweaking.

But it’s the mess of university funding I would like to approach today. Universities have already found their way through one major cut in income and now face a second - the removal of all subsidy for teaching in arts and humanities subjects - which is to say virtually all subsidy in these disciplines.

The Government’s idea was that this should be replaced by increasing student fees; and here the current mess. The ConDems can’t even manage this process; I have, to date, heard three fee-levels floated; 12k, 9k, 7k per year. These figures leave out the ‘no cap’ possibility. It all sounds as if reporters are picking figures out of the air. Does the Government have no awareness of the effect on universities of this situation? Or don’t they care?

They certainly haven’t got their act together. They appear to be arguing that Universities will have to ensure entry across the social and economic range. But these are little more than weasel words when you’re busy erecting barriers against this.

I hear another option being raised; privatised universities or parts of universities. That would suit a Conservative philosophy very well; a true free market in which fees and teaching can find their own levels according to what the market can sustain. Perhaps they would like to see faculties hived off into private ownership and leasing, say, space and other support services from a university - what a nightmare.

In addition, why attack the arts and humanities like this? People with these qualifications go into the world and make valuable contributions too. Yes, we must encourage science and engineering, but we must support and value these other areas too; if not we shall quickly become a philistine nation. And arts subjects will become the preserve of the well-off . . . and there, perhaps, is the point.

There are some universities (like schools) that aren’t performing as well as they should. These must be pulled up to scratch or close. There are students (a few) who it would appear shouldn’t be at university - though it’s more likely they are not yet ready to be there. It would seem inevitable at this time that some universities will, rightly, close. But we don’t want to go back to is a time when a university education was only for a comfortably off tiny minority.

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