But how have we got here? Since 2010 there has been an experiment in market fundamentalism in the HE sector. For a minority of old universities this has never been a problem, fire guarded by huge bank balances, investments, endowments, stellar reputations and a steady trickle (or torrent) of philanthropic giving. But for much of the sector, this experiment has led to rapid expansion, a series of positive feedback loops constantly leading complex organisations further and further away from an equilibrium position. At the helm, vice-chancellors who have spent much of their careers in academic posts, suddenly leading huge multi-million pound ‘companies’. Supported by high level consultants and managers who have often been brought in from the private sector, the hubris has been amazing to behold. I worked in an institution where regular presidential videos were sent to all staff to tell us of the sunny uplands, the nirvana which we were working towards; there was no hint of the cognitive dissonance we were experiencing, sitting in a Victorian building where the heating didn’t even work. Those not chosen as the poster-boys of an institutional vision are often treated badly, at best as units to milk income from, at worst a huge inconvenience which may or may ont be tolerated.
The marketisation experiment has left universities as schizophrenic organisations, with leaders detached at the top of the organisations dreaming of shiny buildings, and delusions of greatness, the CEOs of major educational corporations. Meanwhile many of the ‘foot-troops’ below are hanging on by their finger ends, attempting to keep the civic roots of the same institutions alive. These positions cannot co-exist. I have seen many colleagues, and eventually myself, leaving such broken organisations to move to the parts of the sector which still attempt to retain their community roots and belief in an educational rationale for their work.
Into this increasingly imploding system comes the Auger Review. The final recommendations are not publicly known yet, but there is little doubt to many that the headline recommendation will be a cut in fees for non-STEM subjects to $6-7.5k/year. There is rumour that the review will state to the government that the drop should be backfilled, i.e. the difference to the present fee paid as a grant to universities. This might be sustainable, but given the shambolic state of British politics, reminiscent of some of the worse VCEGs universities have to offer, the potentially terminal impact of a no-deal will have the treasury grasping for any savings possible. If this happens, we may well see a rapid shrinking of the HE sector as debts are no longer payable, as incomes plummet. The knock-on impacts may be huge, and given the recent history of Brexit, there is no guarantee that the government departments responsible would bother doing any risk-assessments. If it is true that a successful market needs failure, this would be at best a long-term recession, if not a full blown depression. If May’s idea was to counteract Corbyn’s attraction for students by calling for Auger, what may happen would make her far less popular as courses would no longer be expensive for students – they just wouldn’t exist.
So what should happen now? First of all Auger should be put on hold. It is a useful review and needs to be considered. But this should be part of a wider public inquiry. There needs to be a pause whilst there is a considered and informed reflection as to what the HE sector is for. The current approach is obviously not working. The failures of management, the lack of financial probity in large parts of the sector, the funding of HE, and the stated aims of HEIs all need to be reviewed and agreed anew. Whilst this happens the sector should be allowed to carry on as is. This is essential, as any collapse will be impossible to reverse once underway.
And if a collapse does happen who will suffer? Not the leaders. Many of them will have huge bank accounts and astronomical pensions to look forward to. Not the consultants, they will merely move on to the next unsuspecting sector. The ones who will lose out are the students, who will be on teach-outs or amalgamations, left with a worse education. For those coming in, there might be far less choice, particularly in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Those who currently make it to university, especially through widening participation routes, will have the door firmly shut. There will be the loss of many academic and professional service jobs. Again, capacity the country has invested in lost for good. The potential of research insights to help drive the country forward, the expertise to pass on to the next generation lost. Finally, there will be the huge hit to local economies. In many places universities are the largest employer and inject large amounts of money into local economies. Imagine cities and towns already reeling from the impact of a no-deal Brexit losing more of their income as students no longer come, institutions no longer hire, etc.
We are at a crossroads, and there needs to be an honest, transparent dialogue from across the sector as to what it should be and how it should be run. I am a strong believer in a co-operative approach, with all those involved in an HEI having a voice in how it is run, and importantly how it is run for the university community and beyond. I see this as a strong civic ethic we need to regain. After all the market fundamentalism doesn’t seem to have worked particularly well thus far.