Friday, 13 February 2015

Wake up!

Higher Education is becoming more and more of an election issue, and universities don’t seem to be waking up to the seriousness of this.

I blogged last week on Labour’s supposed £6,000 fee plan, UUK’s response, and the numbers behind this. Martin McQuillian blogged persuasively on wonkhe arguing that UUK had scored an own goal. And now a private members’ bill in the House of Commons seems set to keep the issue live.

The Bill was introduced by Oliver Colvile – MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport – on 10 February, and seeks to require university Vice-Chancellors and governing bodies to write annually to students setting out in detail what their tuition fees are spent on. The text of the bill is not yet published, and in any case there’s no chance that it will become law before the election, so it’s the politics which are interesting here.

Let’s have a look at the introductory speech made by Oliver Colvile.
The aim is that letters should be sent by vice-chancellors and governors explaining in detail how they spend their students’ tuition fees. We have to remember that students are the universities’ clients and customers. They are paying a significant amount of money to receive a service. I firmly believe that students deserve accountability from their institutions.
This argument is a straightforward value-for-money argument. The key point: £9k per year seem like an awful lot of money to many people, and if a family has no prior experience of university it isn’t obvious what they get for the money. And, conversely, for universities any individual student’s £9k fee is a relative drop in the ocean. There’s a clear mismatch between the cost felt by the customer/client and the benefit felt by the provider.
In last year’s annual grant letter, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), who was then Minister for Universities and Science, expressed concern about the substantial upward drift of the salaries of some top managements at our universities. I believe that if universities were more accountable to their students, they would ensure that they could justify that expenditure.
Now we can see the politics. And it gets stronger:
According to Times Higher Education, the best-paid 10 vice-chancellors of English universities earned between £365,432 and £480,000 in 2012-13. … Members may wish to compare those academic fat cats’ salaries with the £142,500—including his parliamentary salary—that I understand the Prime Minister earns for running the whole country, rather than just one university.
Not comfortable reading for Vice-Chancellors. Although universities consider themselves to be autonomous and charitable organisations, the public funds spent on universities mean that this debate is fairly and squarely regarded as being about public spending. And Vice-Chancellors’ salaries make them amongst the highest paid public servants in the country.

There is a local dimension to this., The travails of Plymouth University, with suspensions, resignations and very expensive furniture, contribute towards this.  But the bigger picture betrays a different narrative to that pursued by universities, and the politics behind this – about shared pain, austerity and standing up for the rights of the individual – are a long way from serious discussion about the benefits and mechanisms to fund a world class university system. At election time universities must realise that the political arguments will always hold sway, and there’s a real danger that hard questions will be answered in glib ways, with damaging consequences.

Will the sector wake up to this in time?

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