When Governments run up budget deficits, the political and economic conversation tends to focus on achieving the appropriate balance between raising taxes and cutting back on expenditure. Each side of the argument has its proponents, with the ‘left’ usually being the taxers while the ‘right’ are the cutters, the advocates of ‘small government’
In this respect, the conversation around the crisis in third level funding is interesting. The dominant mode of thought is that the sector needs more revenue whether through direct state funding, privately-sourced funding streams, student loans or just increased student fees. This is the ‘tax and spend’ side of the argument. Strangely, there seems to be far less consideration given to the other side of the argument, the ‘cut-your-cloth’ side. Of course, institutions have consistently had to reduce their budgets, with many academic departments existing on the proverbial shoestring, both in terms of staffing and running costs, but it strikes me that the sector hasn’t really taken stock and asked itself if it is committing a version of the famous Einstein ‘insanity’ – trying to do the same things (and more) over and over again and somehow expecting the system to continue to cope as before.
But consider the fact that the modern university/institute is expected to not only educate increasing number of undergraduates, but to train record numbers of researchers to PhD level and beyond; to be a place of knowledge and wisdom creation, to foster industrial and social innovation, to create start-up jobs, and to actively engage with society through all sorts of ‘impact-driven’ research and outreach programs. That is a lot for a single organisation and, importantly, each of these activities consumes resources. For example, the state funding agencies (and the institutions themselves) demand a very planned and ‘strategic’ approach to research. While this approach has an air of plausibility about it, it does demand a significant amount of up-front expenditure before any research is done at all. A substantial administrative infrastructure must be put in place, for example; one that is not required in a system based on individual researchers simply striving to do the best research they can in their area of expertise. Is the investment worth it? Perhaps, but has anyone done a rigorous analysis?
The key point here is that each and every initiative that an institution makes consumes resources and at a time when funding is declining, would it not seem prudent to focus on the core activity, namely education, especially education at undergraduate level?
However, most institutions have done the opposite and they are constantly seeking to make initiatives of all kinds, expanding their brief, trying to be all things to all men – with the best of intentions of course – the third level institutions of today are not the ivory towers of the past. But this means that the already small funding cake gets sliced up even more thinly. The problem, though, is that no institution wants to be seen to be standing still because, these days, to stand still is to go backwards. And so, institutions will continue to expand their activities, to become more ‘relevant’, to strive to adopt some sort of leadership role in society. But the danger is that in doing so they will leave a soft centre of declining quality at undergraduate level.
At the same time, Government policy is not helping with its Technological Universities policy. The end-point of the TU process is a highly homogeneous 10 or 11-university system with very few third level institutions of any other kind. That does not seem healthy in purely educational terms and it is also an expensive way of doing things given the fact that, on average, the cost to state per student is about 33% higher in universities than in the existing IoTs. The IoTs are lean institutions with significant lower administrative and teaching costs than the universities and are precisely the kind of institution we need in times when state funding is declining – very efficient at educating to undergraduate level with pockets of excellence in research. But unfortunately the IoTs are racing towards the high cost model. More than ever, though, we need a heterogeneous system with plenty of low-cost, education-focused intuitions.