Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 November 2012
It is, I admit, difficult to feel sympathy for the Russell Group of elite universities. Its 24 members – Oxford, Cambridge, most of the University of London and 17 other institutions, which between them scoop up more than 80 per cent of higher-education research funding – have a deserved reputation for special pleading. The Russell Group universities enthusiastically embraced Labour’s introduction of student loans and the current coalition government’s move to make higher education entirely student-debt-funded by hiking fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year for undergraduates. We’ll be all right, they said, and sod the rest.
But now, it seems, they’re starting to have second thoughts. Last week, the director of the Russell Group, Wendy Piatt, told a BBC Radio Four documentary that its members have taken a hit of £80 million in lost income because of the shortfall in student recruitment caused by the increase in student fees.
And if they’re hurting, just think of the non-elite universities. The Russell Group have been the main beneficiaries of the government’s decision to relax recruitment controls and allow higher education institutions to recruit as many students as they want with top A-level grades.
The recruitment figures for “post-1992” universities – the former polytechnics – are not yet available. But all the anecdotal evidence suggests a slump in numbers that threatens the viability of many courses and departments.
Universities are in crisis as a consequence of a half-arsed government policy, even the posh ones. And last week, a projection by the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank, suggested that there is a £1 billion “black hole” in the government’s calculations of its likely income from the repayment of student loans because of ludicrous optimism about graduates’ pay in the future. They didn’t think this one through.
I’ve been teaching journalism at various higher education outfits for more than 20 years, and so far there is no sign of any collapse in demand for journalism courses – which is a relief for me but also a concern, because there aren’t many jobs in journalism right now.
Yes, there are opportunities for young journos with the right skills. I’m as committed as ever to getting talented working-class and ethnic-minority kids into the business. My students today are as good as any I’ve had. But I’m worried that the pell-mell expansion of HE journalism training over the past two decades – driven by an extraordinary boom in journalism employment from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s – has gone too far. I had a particularly brilliant group that finished a university course I ran two years ago that I thought would take over Fleet Street: they’ve done well, but they’re mostly not working in journalism. I wouldn’t go as far as a former colleague, who described the journalism training business as “a giant Ponzi scheme”, but we’re training too many journalists today, and that’s not responsible (even if it pays my mortgage).
It’s not quite as ridiculous as pathology, which, as a result of the popularity of TV crime dramas featuring forensic scientists, has seen an increase in the number qualifying as pathologists rising from five 10 years ago to more than 400 – prompting the vice-president of the Royal College of Patholgists, Suzy Lishman, to tell the Times the other week: “If all these young people want a job when they qualify, at least half will have to retrain as mass murderers.”
But the brutal fact is that it is senseless to organise higher education on front-end market demand: particularly with vocational courses, what seems sexy now won’t be so hot in three years. It’s essential to plan ahead with an eye on the employment market.
OK, there will always be a lag and some guesswork, but there is a role for the person in Whitehall who knows better than 18-year-olds who want to be Julian Assange or the star in a TV cop show.
That isn’t, however, the only problem. Just as idiotic as allowing the passing fancies of 18-year-olds to determine the shape of higher education, the way the worth of university teachers and courses is now assessed is a tick-box questionnaire that all undergraduates get before they do their finals, the National Student Survey. A bad NSS is higher-education death – even though it is usually the result of cock-ups and foibles: one lecturer is parachuted in and pitches the lectures too high or low for the students, another is a particularly tough marker, another has a cohort of students he or she fails to enthuse after a badly judged first lecture.
I’ve been all those, and I regret nothing apart from the stupidity of university managements who accept the tick-box questionnaire as the last word. I’ve never handed out over-generous marks to keep students quiet in the NSS, but I know plenty of lecturers that do. The NSS means grade inflation and falling standards. And it doesn’t empower students a jot.
I know it’s old-fashioned, but what Britain’s universities need now is national planning, professional independence for lecturers and funding from general taxation. Marketisation has been a disaster. It privileges the stupid wannabe and the whinger above all others. Time for a change: politics back in command.