£5m for Students’ Green Fund

Big funding for student-led green initiatives.

HEFCE recently announced the launch of the ‘Students’ Green Fund’ which is intended to help students work with their institutions on sustainable development:

NUS will run a single-round bidding competition in summer 2013, to allocate the funding. The funded projects will then receive the funding over two full academic years (2013-14 and 2014-15).

The Students’ Green Fund will encourage local collaborative sustainability initiatives through students’ unions, putting students in the driving seat for sustainability engagement initiatives, as well as supporting them in their role as agents for change.

NUS is determined to create a social norm of sustainability in institutions. The groundwork laid by initiatives such as Student Switch Off in university halls of residence, the sustainable growth programme, Student Eats, and Green Impact, will be strengthened by the Students’ Green Fund.

A handy information video has been developed by NUS:

 

 

Details of the bidding process are on the NUS website. The final deadline for proposals is rapidly approaching and it will be interesting to see who the winners are and what kind of projects are supported. It’s a pretty large sum of money.

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Broken Universities?

Our universities are broken, it seems

According to a new report from the Adam Smith Institute, higher education should not receive public money in the way that it does:

In The Broken University, education expert James Stanfield examines what is seen and what is not seen in the UK higher education sector. In contrast to the conventional wisdom, he finds no compelling evidence to suggest that public subsidies to higher education have any economic benefit. Moreover, Stanfield convincingly argues that once its hidden costs and unintended consequences are taken into account, government intervention in higher education is doing far more harm than good, and is holding back the development of one of the UK’s most important service sectors.

The THE coverage elaborates:

Mr Stanfield’s report also criticises research council funding, highlighting costly projects that it considers to have been a waste of money. It adds that the lack of a profit motive in higher education has had a negative effect on the qualifications universities provide. “Without government intervention, there would now be a variety of different, competing private qualifications providing a variety of educational experiences – many of which would have more purpose and relevance to an individual’s future career than a degree,” it says. It recommends abolishing the cap on fees, allowing “full freedom of entry” into university, and extending tax benefits to for-profit institutions.

THE also includes some robust responses to the claim that UK higher education cannot be considered a success while it receives a £14.3 billion annual public subsidy:

Steve Smith, president of UUK, responded that higher education provided an “outstanding return” on public investment. “For every 61p of public investment received, universities also lever out 39p of private and international investment,” he said. “Compared with other sectors, this represents an excellent return. Universities now generate £59 billion a year for the UK economy, £15 billion more than in 2004.” He added that the sector achieved this despite receiving lower levels of public and private funding than competitor countries.

The proposals don’t seem to have garnered a huge amount of support to date. It might have something to do with the fact that the argument that public funding does more harm than good is rather a difficult one to sustain.

University funding: devastating cuts or continued investment?

Russell Group and UCU lining up against government cuts

Rhetoric overload has kicked in pretty early. If we’re not careful we’ll have used the full armoury of adjectives to describe the cuts far too early in the campaign.

The UCU line, as reported in the Guardian, envisages huge class sizes and thousands of academics on the dole. The apocalyptic vision from the Russell Group is 30 university closures and ‘meltdown’ for all others.

Universities in the UK will be among the most overcrowded in the world within three years if savage government cuts to higher education go ahead, ­academics warned today.

The lecturers’ union, UCU, said more than £900m of cuts announced last month would fill lecture halls with “some of the biggest class sizes in the world” by 2013.

Sally Hunt, the union’s general secretary, said that “the dreams of many hardworking parents for their kids to go to university … will be over”. The cuts would send at least 14,000 academics to the dole queue.

The warning comes after top universities accused Gordon Brown of jeopardising 800 years of higher education, saying the cuts – which the Institute for Fiscal Studies says may reach £2.5bn – would “bring them to their knees”.

Leaders of the Russell Group of 20 leading universities, which includes Warwick, Liverpool and Glasgow as well as Oxford and Cambridge, said ministers failed to appreciate one of the “jewels in the country’s crown”. At least 30 universities could disappear and the rest faced possible ­meltdown.

Dramatic stuff (leaving aside the inexplicable omission of the University of Nottingham from the Russell Group list above). So dramatic in fact that it prompted a rather testy response from Lord Mandelson in The Guardian. In short his line is that the government has invested heavily in universities, this is not going to vanish overnight and the cuts are modest in the context of the global funding of HE:

The Russell Group of universities seemed to suggest our higher education system is teetering on the brink of collapse (Universities: cuts will bring us to our knees, 12 January).

“Cuts on university budgets will have a devastating effect,” they said, “not only on students and staff, but also on our international competitiveness, national economy and ability to recover from recession.” But the reality is different. While universities cannot escape the coming squeeze on public finances, nor are they under any kind of threat.

So the reduction of £950m in public funds over the period 2010-2013 is only one part of a complex funding picture. Given that the proposed reductions stretch between now and 2013, is it really reasonable to describe the equivalent of a reduction of under 5% over three years as “swingeing”?

The Russell Group says “cuts of this magnitude in overall funding will impact on the sustainability of our research”. But teaching and research funding – even after the £180m efficiency savings and the reductions in December’s grant letter – will still actually grow between 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. Research funding will grow in real terms this year by 7%.

So, apocalypse now?

On the need for discretion in discussing HE cuts

Very good piece by David Eastwood in The Guardian.

As he suggests – the cuts being discussed are achievable, perhaps, but hardly desirable. Moreover, they should be a matter for discreet discussion, not broadcast:

Many of us remember the glorious Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch. A quartet of the now-comfortably off, drinking Château de Chasselas, and seeking to outdo one another in recollections of an impoverished childhood. One claims to have lived in a cardboard box. Another immediately counters: “We used to dream of living in a cardboard box”. And so it goes on, ever more preposterous, through eating tar from the road, to getting up to work before you’d gone to bed. (Now that’s something many vice-chancellors can identify with.) And finally the flourish: “If you tell the young people of today that, they won’t believe you”.

Glorious, surreal, and a high point of British social satire. Yet I keep bumping into higher education’s modern reworking of this sketch. I overhear, in the margins of events, one savant saying “We’re modelling 5% cuts”. Another intervenes: “5%, oh, we used to dream of 5%, we’re modelling 10%”; and then another, “10% – luxury! We’re modelling 15%”. And so it goes on, until someone says, without apparent irony, that they are modelling 25%.

Of course, all this might be going on, but is it real and is it helpful to parade it? The cuts to the system in the 1980s were 15%, from a higher baseline of funding, and the consequences were devastating. It took a generation to recover, and the current government should still claim credit for its unprecedented investment in the research base and its courage in legislating for (but not quite introducing) variable fees. The pall of the 1980s cuts hung over the sector for two decades.

Avoiding the posturing would seem to be very sensible advice.

How real is the concern over degree standards?

Guardian story: Take concern over degree standards seriously, universities warned

Whilst MPs will always find ways to give VCs and universities a hard time, they can rarely be accused of getting too close to the serious issues. But where is the evidence for this huge public concern about degree standards? And are the responses the right way forward in the context of what is inevitably going to be a reduction in public funding for universities?

Universities must take public concern over degree standards seriously if they want to make the case for more investment by the taxpayer, the new head of the higher education funding body warned yesterday. Speaking on his first day in the job, Sir Alan Langlands, the former chief executive of the NHS, took vice-chancellors to task when they complained about being “roasted” by MPs during an inquiry into qualifications at British universities and the quality of the student experience.

“Sometimes select committees catch the public mood. There is real public interest which needs to be addressed. If there is some scepticism we have to be able to take that head on and deal with it,” said Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce).

But is there really a big public concern about standards? There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support the notion that there is widespread scepticism about degrees.

Prof Rick Trainor, vice-chancellor of King’s College London and president of Universities UK, said they had been given a roasting by the committee and that universities and Hefce should act together against a “sustained campaign of scepticism” by MPs and others.

Baroness Blackstone, vice-chancellor of Greenwich, said there had been some grade inflation in numbers of firsts and 2:1 degrees due to league tables and the sooner universities moved away from this crude assessment the better.

Whilst there is a debate to be had about the replacement of degree classification (and attempts are still being made to promote the alternatives), accepting the proposition that the proportion of good degrees has risen because of league table driven grade inflation doesn’t seem to be a helpful starting point in countering the sceptics.

Prof Geoff Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths London, said the maintenance of standards was fragile because of lack of resources. “Quality will be under threat in coming years and we need to be able to resist reductions in funding,” he said.

But funding has gone up, including as a result of variable fees, and to argue that there is fragility in standards maintenance and that quality is threatened does seem somewhat disingenuous in an economic climate where there is only one direction we can expect public funding for universities to be heading. It is far from clear how this is going to be resisted by the sector given the funding gains and the pay increases in recent years.

On the prospects of future funding, Langlands warned: “I have been involved in government spending negotiations for 15 years and I have known a less propitious time for arguing for public investment.”

(This must be a misquote, surely.) Not propitious times at all. And, whilst there might not be a big public debate about degrees at the moment, linking funding demands to the maintenance of standards and quality may end up bringing one about. That really wouldn’t be terribly helpful.