Thursday, 5 August 2010

A passing storm or a window on disaster

PA Consulting has just reported on an online survey (A Passing Storm, or Permanent Climate Change? Vice-chancellors' Views on the Outlook for Universities.) of university VC’s.  The report variously reported that 74% of respondents thought it likely that a university will fail; 64% highlighted the growing gap between senior management and their staff and the inability to change staff attitude to change and 81% of respondents that it is at least probable that private universities will offer considerable competition in the near future.   
However, with only a 28% response rate it is a poor report to place any judgements on.  Indeed, the report is not telling us anything that was not already known but provides the HE sector with the opportunity to moan and fight amongst the Russell Group, the post 92 group etc.  A large section of university education in the UK is moribund and is seeking international student fees to keep it buoyant.  However, are all those seeking, capable of finding and delivering the appropriate experience for students and does it not distract our attention from the crisis in UK students’ ability to support UK plc.
Surely the argument is what is happening to tertiary education within the broad reach of UK plc education in comparison with our global competiveness and the real quality of graduates entering employment.  It is probably too strong to say that we have too many universities but we do have too many universities that are standing still or acting like grown up FE colleges.
We need the speciation of the tertiary sector, started under Thatcher, to be given some direction and assistance to make the transition downwards rather than always upwards. This does mean moving staff, intransigent or otherwise, out of the system and for managers to manage through performance those staff not up to the task.  HEFCE have not been empowered to do this despite several attempts to persuade some to re-assess their staff and product mix.  Let's celebrate and fund globally competitive research to be truly global but at the same time let's make sure teaching led institutions with very limited research activity but endless spoon feeding of students through the immaculate QA and pastoral support systems are helped to become transition or two year community universities / colleges.  This would complete a backward integration into secondary and vocational education that might make education foster independent thinking and capability across all levels of educational attainment to support the transformation of UK plc.
This might also reduce the enormous cost of remedial teaching that has to occur in tertiary education because of secondary educational failures.
Therefore, it is not about private versus public because we are a market based econom: the correct product mix will win through.  It is about ensuring UK plc gets maximum value from its investment from contributing to public or private universities tuition fees.