Lord Mandelson keynote speech at Lord Dearing Memorial Conference

Lord Mandelson delivered the keynote address at the Lord Dearing Memorial Conference held at the University of Nottingham in February 2010.

Lord Mandelson commented on Lord Dearing’s contribution to higher education:

Lord Dearing was very clear that our higher education system was central to what made our society intellectually curious and critical, what made it socially just and humane. It is the place where we define and redefine our sense of ourselves and the forces that shape us.

The main thrust of his speech though was about the consequences of the cuts in HE funding he had recently announced. In essence, he was uncompromising in presenting the reductions as a necessary contribution to wider public finance savings and as an opportunity to universities to reconsider their spending and help to “focus minds” on the need to seek out new sources of funding (and he also commented specifically on the University of Nottingham):

Universities have been able to leverage a steep rise in non-state funding. They have widened their sources of income by exporting their teaching brands, opening their doors to fee-paying international students. Higher education is now a major export industry for the UK and a key comparative advantage – some £5.3billion in exports in 2008. Nottingham has done this very well. The best university systems in the world are defined by a wide range of public and private funding and British universities need the same diversity. I recognise that sources of additional business income are not limitless and can be irregular, especially during a downturn. But even a small expansion in this work would go a long way in closing the gap created by a period of fiscal constraint.

But a large part of the speech was dedicated to discussing the extension of part-time study and two-year intensive degrees with the argument being that these are creative ways to reduce spend:

The push to save costs can and should actually push the system in the direction of the modes of study I have been advocating. Part-time degrees, shorter and more intensive courses all offer the potential to lower student support costs, use resources more intensively and improve productivity.

Not terribly convincing. Whilst strong arguments about the need for savings can be made, the proposals around alternative modes of study are much less persuasive.

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Impact of the Budget on higher education

Savings needed? No need to think about it, just cut the administration.

John Denham has written to HEFCE on the impact of the Budget.

This is a significant letter from the Secretary of State but it doesn’t quite say what the Guardian is reporting. The paper’s headline states: “Universities told to cut admin costs, not teaching or research”. This isn’t precisely the message but the sentiments are there:

Ministers have calmed fears that universities will be asked to axe thousands of academic jobs and make savings on teaching and research. Denham460x276
Letters from the universities secretary, John Denham, to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) confirm that savings should be made in administration costs, rather than the core university business of teaching and research.

“I am confident that we can find efficiency savings whilst protecting the quality of teaching and research,” he wrote.

Savings should come from programmes that “do not directly contribute to the frontline delivery of teaching and research”, he added.

The important point here is that, having determined that universities have to make significant savings it really isn’t the job of the Secretary of State to tell institutions how to prioritise their spending. Of course institutions will not seek to undermine quality of teaching and research. But the idea that there is this huge unnecessary raft of administration from which savings can easily be made, that this will have no effect on quality and also that that somehow administrators are dispensable is simplistic and thoroughly misguided.

So, universities will find their own ways to make the savings required and will, it is to be hoped, aim to do so in a measured and sensible way. But this kind of advice is not hugely helpful.