They’re at it again. The Russell Group of leading universities can once again be found prophesying doom if they fail to receive the generous subsidies to which their industry has become accustomed over the past few years.
Apparently, if funding drops, we’re likely to see a ‘devastating effect not only on students and staff, but also on our international competitiveness, national economy and ability to recover from recession’. And why is that? you might ask. Because, ‘We are an absolute cornerstone of British society; the part of the engine that drives the economy of the nation. We supply highly-skilled graduates to the knowledge economy [there are plenty that would hotly dispute this particular claim] and we provide ideas, research and innovation. We do have a special case to make.”
Now clearly, getting beyond mere mischief, there is a perfectly rational case to be made for promoting, and funding, excellence within the university system. It’s just that its advocates might well find a more responsive audience if it weren’t for the fact that the funding which they claim is vital to uphold the excellence of the higher education system is the same money that goes to subsidise students through undergraduate courses such as Surf Science and Technology, or Celebrity Journalism, or Brewing and Distilling.
And no doubt every student and former student in the country would have his or her own unique story to tell about university largesse – whether it be expensive fleets of cars, or little-used and highly expensive media suites, or even just the vast revenue ploughed into recruiting future students in order to secure future funding streams.
The Russell group would, I suspect, try to absolve themselves of such charges, and hint toward the provincial universities as being the main culprits, those doing the same job, though less well, as the old polytechnics used to do. Even so, I’d still be tempted to say: Tough – break up the cosy-consensus and get your own house in order.
Only they won’t. Because like so many other sectors that have become addicted to the no strings attached easy-love of the state, there is now a serious sense of entitlement. And this sense of entitlement appears to be chronically detached from any notion of mutuality, the recognition that this money belongs to the taxpayer, that it comes both with the responsibility to use it thriftily and wisely, and the demand for certain minimum standards. Universities are all too often run as businesses, a cold managerialism quite detached from the notions of social responsibility and service that once pulsed through them.
Some will claim, rightly, that the universities are indeed doing an important job, furnishing the economy with the kind of workforce that will spur the country forward into the new age, that will help the country prosper in difficult times. And in many cases the humble taxpayer will no doubt see the truth of this argument.
But the value of surf scientists and celebrity journalists? I suspect not. Universities will have to cut their cloth along with everybody else.