The narcissism of minor differences

They finally arrived yesterday. BIS published both the HEFCE grant letter and the SFA’s Skills Funding Statement. One was 6 pages and the other 60 but they both delivered roughly the same amount of cash to the FE and HE sectors. They also delivered more or less what had been set out in the Autumn Statement – i.e. some quite significant cuts to both sectors but not too much more on top of what George Osborne delivered in December.

For FE, the larger cuts to the adult skills budget are set for 2015-16. Of course FE will still have to cope with the cuts set out by DFE particularly in relation to 18 year olds on the cusp of being the responsibility of a different department.

For HE most of the cuts – £125m in total when compared to last year’s grant letter – are taken up by the ‘refocusing’ of the NSP and the reduction of £100m in spending announced in the Spending Review. It is still true that most in the sector do not mourn its passing, but taken together with the ‘mainstreaming’ of the Access to Learning Fund, it is pretty clear that it’s additional spending on disadvantaged students – however effective or ineffective – that is taking the hit.

Given that there appears to be so little difference from the figures in the Autumn Statement, it does make you wonder why both letters took quite so long.

Maintaining science ring funding, and HEIF as well as increasing capital for teaching and research is good news. However, there will be those in the sector who quickly point to the rapidly declining value of the funding in real terms since the ring-fence effectively goes back to 2008 spending levels. BIS ministers have got their response in first though and have challenged the sector to up its game on efficiency alongside its deliberate challenge on ‘escalating top pay’.

The headline then is basically that these are largely the cuts that were unveiled last year and that HEFCE are being empowered to decide when and where the savings will be made. Ministers have asked that HEFCE should ‘deliver savings in ways that protect as far as possible, high cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation and small and specialist institutions’.

Cue a scramble in the sector for which of these priorities should be protected in this year’s allocations ahead of the emergency meeting of HEFCE Board at the end of February. We already saw plenty of this sort of activity in the run up to last year’s Spending Review as well as in the periods to the Autumn Statement and the Grant Letter. It’s unseemly and unnecessary.

Given the axing of the NSP and ALF it does look as though it will be the Student Opportunity budget that will carry most of the cuts. But that probably won’t be enough to stop the sector forming a circular firing squad.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Sigmund Freud describes such behaviour as the ‘narcissism of minor differences’ – ‘the phenomenon that it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other’.

Sadly I’m unable to tell whether Freud’s views were formed because his research was world class, whether he came to them through his teaching or from his treatment of both the rich and poor. Not that it matters.

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