University Council: The Wrong Agenda

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The recently published agenda for the University Council meeting on March 25th makes a mockery of the University’s claim that Sports Studies degrees were not ended for financial reasons. The agenda also confirms the widespread fear and speculation that other courses in a similar position to sports are also under threat.

While we have been consistently told that Sports degrees were ended simply as a means to increase the research standard of the University, the Vice Chancellor’s strategy (item 05.1 in the agenda) provides more clarity to the reasoning behind this decision. The strategy states that he intends to “increase income from research grants and contracts at a rate which exceeds that of our Russell Group comparators.” So rather than research standards, Prof. Don Nutbeam aims to improve the University’s income. A further commitment, in the financial strategy states that the University will focus its academic energy on ‘well funded subjects’ to ‘maximize earning from research grants and contracts’.

The message then is clear. Courses are to be judged not on quality or value to society, but in the cold, hard realities of pounds and pence.

The agenda goes on to state that resources expended on unfunded research- often the most academically and socially beneficial- will be reduced. It also states that the University will disinvest from academic areas that do not ‘fit with our strategy’. As this strategy seems to be mostly about maximizing income from research, it is clear that early fears are justified. Non-profitable courses are under threat.

The agenda later confirms this. University treasurer Malcolm Ace, predicts a release of resources from disciplines that the University will withdraw from entirely. He goes on to say that this money can then be invested in other areas. Therefore it is not as simple as cutting back on non-profitable courses to save money, the University plans to cut them so it can use the spare money to make as much profit as possible in other areas. This should rightly worry students in non-research based courses such as humanities.

The agenda also contains a commitment to reduce travel costs by strictly enforcing University rules on travel policy. Given that travel costs ran to over £9 million in the 2009 financial year, students will be concerned as to the extent to which these rules may have been flouted, especially given the harsh economic circumstances we find ourselves in.

In addition to all this, the University plans to increase student numbers from 20,380 to 25,000 by 2014. This comes in the wake of a Wessex Scene investigation last year revealing serious overcrowding on campus as a result of a boom in the student population since the mid nineties. There is no commitment in the review to invest money in new facilities to support the new students, and therefore it is safe to assume that overcrowding problems are set to get worse.

Many students will feel concern at this strategy. The focus on profit is in danger of blinding management to the real value of education. There is also a real threat to many other courses and jobs on campus as the strategy is implemented and cost cutting takes effect. As students we have a responsibility to fight for and defend the quality of our University, not just for us but for future generations of students. We are an academic institution, our commitments should be towards benefitting society and advancing academically not pure financial gain. Join Students Against Cuts on facebook to get involved.

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Discussion8 Comments

  1. avatar

    Great article Peter. It’s not a surprise but it is still a shame that our generation’s education is being treated like an expendable business.

    Chris Houghton
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    I think it is important to understand that, whether we like it or not, the University IS a business. It has to be profitable in order to grow and prosper. This is the University’s perspective. It seems like they want to maximise the profit-generating departments and eliminate the rest.

    The question is: will they use these extra profits to benefit students as a whole, or will they simple use them to generate even more profits? I think if the former is true, then the departments which the the University deems to be profitable will truly excel at the expense of departments like humanities. If the latter, then this begs the question: “What does the University care more about, it’s students or it’s research.”

    It is a shame to even have to ask that question.

    Peter Apps
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    Universities aren’t businesses per se, they are publicly funded bodies. The problems we have at the moment are symptomatic of New Labour’s approach to public institutions: even though they aren’t businesses treat them like they are, and rank and value everything in terms of profit.

    But this isn’t the way its always been. Before 1997 people in this country didn’t pay to go to University, and the system worked. It’s only recently that the conventional wisdom has become that they can’t survive without ever higher student fees.
    In the same way, our higher education system has a long, proud history that has survived for hundreds of years without needing to focus only on areas that make the most money. What we’re seeing here is a new trend and a dangerous one. It shouldn’t be looked at as the way its always been or the only way to do it.
    A profit and business focused approach to higher education will lead to a situation similar to the US; where a place at University is ridiculously expensive, academic research is trapped by the influence of corporate and state funding and socially important but non-profitable areas like humanities are brushed to one side.
    We need to take a long, hard look at where the University’s priorities are and where they should be. In accepting, out of hand, that Universities are businesses and that they must make decisions in order to maximise profit is a mistake, and ends the debate before it begins.

    James Pipe
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    Great article and well written, just a couple of comments:

    The argument that we should ask everyone else (i.e. taxpayers) to pay for something of value primarily to a single individual does seem somewhat baseless – especially as it is made so easy for that individual to defer payment into their (hopefully) more prosperous future with a student loan.

    On top of this the article suggests that pounds and pence is not a measure of “value to society” when, in reality, it is the primary measure of value in our society. I do not mean to devalue any degree, simply to suggest the Vice chancellor might have been shrewd in accepting that other institutions can provide a particular degree course for a better return on investment. It’s seems like fundamental common and business sense and I don’t think anyone’s degree will be cut short – I believe a management student might call it “focusing on your core competencies”.

  2. avatar

    Am I not right in stating that the University is a non profit organisation?? Surely any profit made would be invested back into the University itself straight away, perhaps in the form of more lecturers, or better facilities which would benefit the students. Unless I am wrong in saying the above (and please let me know if I am), then noone’s personal wallet is benefiting from the cuts, rendering thi whole article somewhat redundant!

    It seems very simple to me, but perhaps I am missing something key here!

    Chris Houghton
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    The University is part of the public sector, owned by the Government. This is the case for almost all universities in the country. As far as I know no one is benefiting as a result of the cuts. (Granted the Vice Chancellor gets paid a lot but it is the top job, after all)

    More and more now, the University is choosing to operate in a more business-like fashion, focusing on the departments that bring in the most cash. In theory this will then be reinvested into improving the University departments, which in turn will bring in even more money.

    David Hows
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    But the above article suggests this is a bad thing?

    I appreciate that the Uni is being run more and more like a business but why is this a negative point if the increased profits are fired straight back into improving departments?

    Excuse the over used terminology here but it seems to me like the greater good is being practiced.

    From my point of view, I have no problem with the cuts being made as long as the extra money saved is well invested.

  3. avatar

    Without making this a debate about top up fees, I would say briefly that huge student debt is becoming an unacceptable burden for less well off students; is going to force graduates into choosing the best paid job above the most useful (doctors picking private practice over the NHS and lawyers picking corporate over legal aid) and with the job market shrinking, might be an economic disaster if loads of students can’t pay their loans back. But like I said, that’s a different debate, that doesn’t have much to do with this article…

    David, you are right to say that no one is gaining, at least in the sense that there aren’t shareholders pocketing most of the profit in the way there would be in a large business. Although given that the number of University staff earning over £150 000 has nearly doubled over the last 3 years, you could argue that there are those getting something out of it.
    The point is really who is losing. By trying to make the University as profit efficient as possible, you lose a lot of what higher education should provide. If you look at the courses on offer thinking which of these can make the most money, rather than which of these is academically important or socially beneficial, some very important courses get cut. Say what you like about sports studies, but it gives more back to the community than business management.
    In the same way, if universities start dropping humanities, philosophy, life sciences, because they aren’t profitable enough, it’s wider society that loses out. And I’m sure you can appreciate both the academic and social concerns if the only research academics spend time on is the kind that big businesses and government departments pay millions for.

    The central point is this: all public institutions exist to provide a particular service. The first priority they should have is providing that service in the best way possible. And when there is a conflict between saving money and preserving the quality of what they provide, the quality is what should be favoured as much as is possible.
    The approach of this government has been to treat public bodies like businesses, and make them as profitable as possible with little regard for the quality of service. And unfortunately what we can now see in Universities is the effect of that: the line between profit making and quality becomes so blurred, that they forget what they exist to do, and only remember to get a good figure in the book at the end of the financial year.

    So James, while I do agree that “the article suggests that pounds and pence is not a measure of “value to society” when, in reality, it is the primary measure of value in our society”, I would argue that our society has got its values very much in the wrong place.

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