Universities and the Impact of the Recession


I recently attended a ‘professorial dinner’ at Manchester, the purpose of which was to discuss our future strategy. The main message at the start was – universities, after a decade of a relatively benign environment, face a decade or more of austerity. How are we placed to deal with this new reality and what should we do? Here’s my response.

Since the start of the “Uni” movement in the early 1990s – when excellent teaching-led polytechnics converted into universities – the overwhelming imperative in HE has been growth – bigger is better. This is clearly going to at the very least stop – but some of the consequences may be dire.

Allegedly the growth imperative has been moderated by the impact of the RAEs (research assessment exercises). In reality, RAE results have been largely used as marketing ploys and PR to attract more students. They do little to change behaviours of academics for several reasons. First, we don’t know what the goal-posts are until after the event. Second, the incentives (money) that accrues from good RAE performances is only weakly correlated to who contributed to the RAE result in most universities – the university bureaucracy usually gets there first when it comes to carving up the loot.

To the extent that REA’s have affected behaviour it has largely been detrimental to innovative and edgy research. The route to RAE success has largely been through conformity to existing disciplines – the ‘best’ journals are highly related to academic community silos. In both the physical and social sciences the really interesting stuff is cutting across these boundaries – but the RAE’s have favoured “sticking to the knitting”.

The RAE has also had little impact on the quality of education. Apart from Oxbridge – which lives in a highly privileged bubble of combined extra state and private funding – in most of higher education there is no strong link between research excellence and teaching excellence. To the extent that there are better qualification outputs in research-led universities, it has more to do with the quality of their intake than their teaching (and, incidentally, the same probably applies to Oxbridge).

Actual transmission of research-led, cutting edge, ideas into teaching is rare in the supposedly excellent universities. Teaching is mostly left to less experienced staff and PhD students, whilst academics get on with what really interests them – research and publishing. Some of the ex-poly’s, who are generally research weak, probably add considerably more value for their students than some of the elite institutions.

That does not mean the outputs of the elite are less good – they are still generally better – but this has more to do with whom they attract and recruit rather than what they do for them in teaching. Some of their students could be given a syllabus, a reading list and a library pass and come out with a 1st without even bothering with any of the tedious teaching stuff (and I wouldn’t mind betting some of them do).

Another trend in UK universities since the early 1990s – along-side ‘big is beautiful’ – has been the almost Stalinist tendency towards centralisation. In the ex-polytechnics this was a reaction to their newfound autonomy and the (relative) lack of external scrutiny compared to their previous incarceration under the CNAA straight-jacket. For the old universities it had more to do with the desire to get and hold on their rapid expansion. Whatever the cause, the effects have been clear across the sector – greater top-down control, and increase in the power of the (parallel) administrative structures and above all fra greater inflexibility and responsiveness.

Universities are – and will always be – an uneasy alliance between the requirements for mass teaching and qualification regulation on the one hand and the freedom of research on the other. Recently however the balance has tilted way too far in the direction of the educational bureaucracy part of our role. If universities are to be the powerhouses of ideas and innovation in the 21st century that they ought to be – indeed need to be – then a fundamental rethink is needed.

First, we need to recognise that big is not necessarily beautiful. Universities may be large, but within them units need to be small, highly autonomous and well connected to be really creative – ‘creative compartments’ as one organisational theorist suggested – but with good horizontal links.

Second, they need to be inefficient – in the sense that they need extra capacity over and above what is strictly necessary to allow for creative interactions. The climate of the next few years will militate against this – but it is essential to genuine knowledge-leadership.

Third, we need to actively teardown disciplinary boundaries – they are, as the kids would say, “just so 20th century”. Differences within social science disciplines are much bigger than differences between them. If the current crisis teaches us nothing else it is that one-dimensional explanations of individual and social human behaviour are at best partial and at worst devastatingly misleading. We need a different approach (and a rejection of the RAE straight-jacket which reinforces disciplinary conservatism).

“Ivory towers” is the classic put-down for universities. “It’s purely academic” is a term of abuse for any argument, especially in Britain. Some of the implied criticism is justified – but it can only be fought if we academics rethink how we do our business. If we want to be “thought leaders” rather than “purely academic” we have to change the ways we relate internally, how we judge what is ‘excellent’ and how we relate to the wider communities of knowledge outside of academe. If we want to survive the ‘age of austerity’ and really add to ‘public value’ we have to change our game.

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About Prof. Colin Talbot

Professor of Government (Emeritus). Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
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One Response to Universities and the Impact of the Recession

  1. Colin Talbot says:

    I am grateful to Andy Lloyd, Assistant Registrar – Learning and Teaching, at Cardiff University in who’s presentation I found this quote:

    “There is a danger now that if we keep running RAEs the whole concept of a university in which teaching is informed by world-class research is under threat because it will produce more and more specialists in research who have less and less contact with undergraduates because of their need to compete globally in research”
    –Professor Michael Sterling – Vice-Chancellor and Principal Birmingham University and Chair of the Russell Group (Quoted in the Guardian Education Supplement 09/11/04, p. 18)

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