Girl, Interrupting

August 10, 2010

The mythology of funding – moving UK universities into the real world

Filed under: economics,higher education — sylviamclain @ 6:02 pm
Tags: ,

I have a bunch of American friends who describe themselves at Italian-Americans, mostly because they have a somewhat recent relative from Italy and they have, through this relation, some sort of connection with this ‘old world’ Italy, which usually contains olive oil, great wine and prosciutto – but other than that seems to have not much real connection with the Italy of today. Italy is a modern industrial country (with the world’s 7th largest GDP in 2008), most Italians I know anyway don’t pick grapes or live in a village or press their own olive oil. Italy has moved on from the culture that the Italian-Americans I know identify with, yet this almost mythical idea of the old world still exists. When times were better and so the story goes, life was simple and concentrated entirely around good food and family.

But I think this is partially a myth and every culture has its myths. America with the good old pioneer spirit and livin’ off the land, when in reality most modern Americans really grow up in the suburbs. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a myth, a nice novel, a great memory, all good stuff. However it does become a problem when you live the myth believing it’s reality; in the fantasy world instead of the real one.

UK Higher education business models are quickly looking like they are based on some kind of myth, reminiscent of the myths we have in the new world about the old country of our ancestors. The education myth is that greatest education on the planet is in the UK, that many foreign students are dying to pay for it and that, in turn, supports the indigenous students and brings higher education to the forefront by increased funding, what’s not to love?

There is lots not to love, as pointed out in last week’s Economist, the ‘rich-world students’ now have more choices and, in short, UK universities need to stop being so complacent. This is a good point and this idea that foreign students will always come is also steeped in psychological mythology. The idea seems to rest on the old world appeal of Oxford, Cambridge, etc. and assumes it will always be there (the appeal not the Universities). And indeed it probably always will be, but that doesn’t mean that lots of (or indeed more) foreign students are going to continue to pay for it.

The Economist explicitly says they (Westminster and the individual Universities) need to “…concentrate on making British Universities as good as possible”.

And what does this take? Ideally, more higher education (HEFCE) funding, but that isn’t going to happen. At this point we know that isn’t going to happen, we can lament about it, but, at least now with the current government, it isn’t going to happen. I think the Con/Lib government (I am still wondering with the Lib went but this is another matter) are happy to just live under the current myth, so much so they actually CUT HEFCE funding – though Gerald Warner of the Telegraph disagrees and calls the cuts disguised increases, but that is another story.

So without the ideal, what does it take to keep universities at their best? One thing I think almost everyone agrees on is that they have to have money, its the only way to employ the best lecturers and professors; and importantly for science, pay for the equipment and laboratory space essential to its success.

So if universities have to have money and the government isn’t coughing it up, where can it come from?

Some of it has to come from student fees but not foreign students alone. The Economist suggests that domestic UK students should start paying for their education. I agree, ideally this wouldn’t need to happen, but thinking that the money is going to come from where it traditionally has at this point is living in myth. The old UK higher education model is that university is free for qualifying domestic students, but this old model only allowed a very small proportion of students to go to University, because it wasn’t so expensive for the state. But now an ever increasing proportion of (domestic) students are attending, hence the addition of top-up fees, and the idea that the government and foreigners can just pay for it, is again a big fat myth and not sustainable.

The caveat here is that there must to be funding available for less well-off students, but this is something that can be sorted out. A student loan service, like that which exists in the US, may be an answer for the UK. Student loans can be deferred until the graduate has a job which allows them to pay more easily and they put money, albeit indirectly, back into the institutions for others that benefited them. Done correctly, this could be a very potent social economic model for graduates and universities.

It is high time to start thinking about new economic models for UK universities and I agree with the Economist – a psychological change is needed. This new model cannot be based on the old idea that university education in the UK must be free for all (or almost free viz top up fees). Is it ideal for students to pay? No, but it is simply not realistic to think we can continue to live in the 1950’s under some elite mythological model where the government pays for everything. They don’t have any money and, at least in the current government, even if they do, they aren’t going to give it to Higher education anytime soon.

June 21, 2010

China is becoming more progressive than the UK

So China just announced it is opening up its trade and (slowly) letting the Yuan float free – previously they have kept the Yuan fixed against the dollar, in part, to make exports to other countries cheap.

This, I think, is going to change China and indeed the world fundamentally.

And while China has made this progressive move, the UK coalition government is being economically Draconian? They are evidently not listening to the economic arguments from Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman and Road From Ruin authors Bishop and Green – that now is the time to put money INTO the economy, not effectively shut it down. And as Krugman says ‘How hard is that to understand?”

The UK Con/Lib coalition government is going to announce its budget tomorrow, and I don’t think things are looking good for science, higher education in addition to the economy. Given that higher education places and the business innovation budget have already been slashed, more than likely there will be more budget cuts to these two sectors by the government.

But science research, higher education and business innovation are essential to a solvent future for the UK, so to echo Krugman..

How hard is this to understand?

The Chinese get it.

China is currently putting big money into these sectors, with a 25% rise in their science funding budget in 2009 and a 45% increase in the 2008 budget for universities.

China seems to understand that their future is in scientific research and education, presumably to create new high technolgical industries which will make them a world competitor in the future.

Maybe George Osbourne could use a trip to China, but I somehow doubt he would listen.

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