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Plan for the worst and hope for the best

Universities have over-relied on growth to see themselves through tough times. The safer option now is to consolidate and see out the coming crisis, argues Jim Dickinson.
This article is more than 5 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

For a couple of months now I’ve gathering and trudging my way through many higher education institutions’ strategic plans to think through how students’ unions might best influence such strategies in the interests of students.

Even before Brexit this was a miserable task. The level of similarity is such that it would cause a Turnitin server to billow with smoke, and the daft jargon gives the overall impression that they were written by the sort of bots that are now taking the graduate level jobs previously promised to the students that fill these places.

I have learned that there is both good news and bad news. The good news is that things seem to have moved on at least a little bit since the last time I did this exercise. Back in 2011, almost every higher education strategy promised their governing body a climb up the league tables, a feat that I thought was impossible until I remembered that climbing the tables is as simple as inventing a new one.

These days there is at least a dose of financial realism coursing through the pages of apple-less macs, lab coated boffins and stationary mortarboards. The bad news is that having collectively identified the right problem – that UK higher education is slowly going bankrupt – everyone has identified the same answer. And they can’t all be right.

“Growth”, proclaims a chapter title in one strategic document. “Meeting demand”, yells another. Some have graphics of the university expanding its geographical coverage, like a map of biological attack in ’24’. Others talk of growing popular markets, exploring new subject areas, building gleaming new facilities, meeting higher level skills shortages, and of strengthening balance sheets. They’re all growing their way out of the problem. No institutions are specialising. None are getting smaller.

There are psychological reasons for this. Contracting is what you do in a crisis. Mergers are what you do when your back’s against the wall. Bold leaders – especially white, masculine bold leaders – do bigger, do better, and do more. They wear hard hats and they invite politicians to open things. They reassess ever wider risk envelopes as a powerful signal of their institutional virility. You can’t trouser a pay increase and then downsize – it sounds wrong. And in UK higher education, the amazing thing is that this strategy of growth has almost never gone wrong.

UK higher education has never really stopped growing. If the answer was “grow our way out”, government policy was almost always encouraging it. Entire careers, books, best practice models and leadership, governance, and management cultures have been built upon the temple of ‘more higher education’. But savvy executives, governors and observers ought to be a bit more sceptical this time around.

The obstacles to further growth

Research income now looks increasingly shaky. Sure, we trade on reputation, and grants will last a while. But without EU funding, academics will drift elsewhere and our research outputs will decline in a classic spiral. Those that think our labs and boffins will get their fair share of EU savings from the national government need to understand that this isn’t the NHS, or even farming. Less research will get done in the UK because of far more immediate political demands.

International students also looks like a problem area. “A weak currency will help”, say the hopelessly optimistic. It will for holidays. But if you’re a prospective applicant committing for 3-5 years what you really want is currency stability. If no UK higher education institution has dared fix its international fees in the currency of student origin so far, few international students will be so bold to commit to post-Brexit Britain.

This assumes that they’d even want to. Gossip amongst international recruiters is that without being the pre-eminent broker to Europe, recruitment to business schools from China looks like even more of a busted flush than it did in May. The rest of the world will also recognise that they need high level vocational STEM far more than they need mis-sold humanities courses, and they will drift off, taking their money with them.

What about traditional domestic 18 year olds? Look at the birth rates: they are hurtling down now for the next six years. European students? The vast majority will look elsewhere in the EU. Government funding? Not when new hard outcomes data reveals much of ‘Harry Potter HE’ to be overpriced smoke and mirrors. Lending and bonds? That looked like a plan that would work for the top third of the sector until six-weeks ago. Now it just looks farcical.

So no higher education institution should be thinking it can expand its way out, save a couple of lucky exceptions. A crisis is coming, one from which higher education has so far been protected and yet ignored the frequent warning signs.

Perhaps the worst news is the coming realignment of political life. For several decades, British politics has been about two tribes: a left dominated by social liberals, and a right dominated by social liberals. Both sides, whether Labour or Conservative, have tended to view things like university expansion, students’ unions, research spending and the liberal arts as a good thing.

But global and domestic events are causing new groupings, now unleashed by the Brexit campaign. The new political choice is on the other axis on the political compass: hereto dominant social liberalism versus a newly resurgent authoritarian conservatism. It is very hard to see higher education as we know it being prioritised by the latter.

All this is why I submit that the new bold option for universities is to do what they have not done for years: to stop competing, and to stop expanding. Contraction is now smart. Merging is now sensible. In uncertain and dangerous times, perhaps it is best to shore up what we’ve got, batten down the hatches, and hope for the best by planning for the worst.

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