Friday 17 December 2010

University Funding

Yesterday, Mike Russell publish his green paper on the Future of Higher Education and its funding.  It didn't contain solutions but options, which included increased support from business and more philanthropic giving.

Giving the stooshie over tuition fees in England, and the proximity of next year's Holyrood elections, all the parties in the Scottish Parliament are manoeuvring round the issue rather than tackling it head on, but Mike Russell did make some interesting remarks during his round of media interviews.

A couple caught my attention but unfortunately they weren't expanded. "... the ability to learn and not the ability to pay," and "... we need to cast an eye over the number of universities we have in Scotland".  Both remarks are related because, before a long term funding solution is found, we have to question the necessity for 50% of our school leavers to become undergraduates and also the quality of some of the courses on offer.  Is it necessary that many courses are of a 4 year duration?

University attendance is seen to be glamorous whereas college is thought to be for those less able.  I know from my own experience this isn't true but to avoid this division many excellent colleges changed to calling themselves universities and are now no longer places of excellence.  Of course they didn't change solely for that reason - they receive more money having university status - but it certainly was one of the factors which was taken into account.

Some years ago now I questioned the head of one Scottish university about the need for courses to last 4 years.  His answer was simple.  If Scottish schools provided a better quality and choice of 6th form studies then more pupils would stay on at school.  Scottish youngsters are often only 16 when they enter the university system and the first year is spent settling them into 'the system' with a minimum amount of time spent on their chosen subject.

Maybe it is time to consider restructuring the whole further education system.  Very recently I was given information about modern apprenticeships which are nothing more than training or retraining courses which do not recognise the excellent standards of City of Guilds and other top quality qualifications. They are nothing less than a suitable description made to entice learners, at the same time ignoring those who do undertake 'old fashioned' apprenticeships.  Not many years ago apprentices were respected because those wishing to learn a trade usually had to spend 3, 4 or 5 years learning from their employer and supported by day or evening college attendance.  Businesses preferred to choose their own apprentices because there was a good possibility, once the apprenticeship was complete, that the person who continue with the company.  With modern apprenticeships that is seldom the case.  The apprentice is not an employee of the company but of the government.

Before more money is handed to further education, a change in its structure is required.  Universities won't want courses to be shortened.  That reduces their funding.  But we should be aiming to provide the best quality of higher education possible for anyone who has the interest and ability to learn and not be concentrating on the number of people we can push through the system.  Nobody wins in that situation except university coffers.

The ability to learn must be the priority.  Those who fit that criteria deserve the help of taxpayers.  Should we be 'pricing' each individual course rather than a flat fee?  Just a thought.


Alex Porter said...

Hi subrosa,

There is no doubt that the bubble economy lead to an inflated higher education sector.

The big problem we face now is that the financial implosion means there are going to be less high paying jobs around. Even without paying fees students rack up many thousands of debt on grants and loans.

As there will be a lot fewer high paid jobs to graduate into many students and their families will make the assessment that university is a bad investment and/or that they won't be able to pay the debts after the course. (not evening mentioning emigration here).

So, I think a huge decline in university numbers is coming anyway. Confidence in job prospects, the UK financial sector and the general British economy and currency is at an all time low.

I'm thinking that we need to half the size of the undergraduate population.

We do need to keep financing core subjects including fine arts. I know but the world is changing and it always starts with artists leading the way..

I'm thinking about tying the subject of university funding up with oil revenues. There is a case for guaranteeing funding to invest in ring-fenced university research. This would increase the international ratings of Scotland unis.

Ratings are a problem and it is astonishing that Edinburgh rates so highly despite a small fraction of the resoure Oxbrige has.

A guaranteed % of oil revenues would see an under ground asset becoming an intellectual asset.

This should be considered by the SNP.

cynicalHighlander said...

OT xmas 4t txt gNR8N enjoy

subrosa said...

Hi Alex, yes I'm sure it did. I read somewhere in the past week that only around 25% of students will pay back their loans/fees. Doesn't seem worthwhile protesting does it?

A couple of years ago I was talking to a retired university principal. He said as an economy Scotland couldn't afford to lose so many of its young people to mediocre four year courses. We needed to bring back the old trade apprenticeships and provide more quality evening classes.

The arts have always been provided for. There is a hardcore of support for them. We also need to support engineering and medical studies and employ these people before they go abroad because they can't find a job.

Yet Edinburgh was the uni accused of racism not so long ago. Haven't heard anything more about it.

subrosa said...

Many thanks CH. I watched it earlier but hope others do too.

All Seeing Eye said...

The only way forward is to drop the idea that attending a University is somehow a "right" for anyone who wants to go, regardless of whether they were dropped on their head as an infant or not. It should be something that marks out the most able and gifted only. And those who can afford to pay should do so.

The problem is that Brown's policy of "double the number of graduates, halve the number of jobs" succeeded very well.

subrosa said...

That's the ideal solution ASE but there will always be those who can afford to go yet have little ability. Therefore unis will always need to provide courses to suit them.

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

The game being played in this £9k tuition fee game, is the Americanisation of or universities.

There the top, Harvard, Princeton, Yale et al charge considerable fees, but the high flying graduates are snapped up by the high flying corporates. And part of their tactics is to pay off the fees of the graduates they recruit.

To them that hath; make every effort to widen the gap between them and the hath nots.

All Seeing Eye said...

Crinkly, why is that "Americanisation"?

What you're saying, I think, is that the top universities offering the top courses charge the top fees, and the top graduates are then offered top jobs by top companies?

Seems good to me.

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

ASE ; the imbalance is in their fees being paid off.

All Seeing Eye said...

Okay, but surely that deal is only struck *after* they have gone to Uni and showed ability? There's no arrangement made before University starts.

And any company can offer a "Golden Hello" to any new employee, be it called a relocation bonus, a pile of cash to pay off debts or anything else. Mine does. Are you suggesting banning this specifically in the case of new graduates?

subrosa said...

RA, what's the difference in paying off the fees of a high flyer and giving them a couple of large bonuses? The best will always achieve the most if they market themselves correctly.

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

ASE & Rosa;

The 'market' as you call it has to exist for these golden bribes to happen.

And as for the best always achieving the most; it depends very much on the values related to the 'achievement' and the 'most' that's achieved by it.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

"The ability to learn must be the priority. "


And to learn, let it be added, at the sort of level required for a rigorous first degree course.

Those who can - I'm guessing between 5% and 10% - should be subsidised, they are our future.

That takes us back roughly to where we were in the 60's or 70's.

The rest need skills, not degrees.

But we're up against the curse of credentialism, and the vested interests of the suppliers.

subrosa said...

Credentialism - great word WY.

It's very sad that a person who has undertaken a 4/5 year trade apprenticeship is no longer respected as much as someone who has spent 4 years at uni 'studying' some obtuse subject which really should be listed under 'vocational' rather than academic. There are quite a few degrees I've noticed in recent years which should and could be studied by way of day release or even evening classes. They are not imperative to anyone's ability to gain employment.

Isn't that why we pay for people to attend a university so as they can be more highly skilled in a work environment?

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