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Why is UK HE in Breakdown? A Lecturer’s View

  • 29 May 2024
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by the Secret Lecturer, author of a recent book written under the same name.

My book couldn’t have come out at a timelier moment – even if I say so myself and even if my own job is vulnerable as a result. It’s no exaggeration to say that UK HE is in breakdown, with each day bringing news of yet another university slashing jobs, freezing budgets and merging departments and faculties. Just in the last few weeks, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has decided to reduce its entire workforce by 5% (meaning 165 jobs lost), universities across Wales have announced up to 1,000 redundancies, Essex has paused pay and promotions to address a £13.8 million shortfall… The list goes on.

The UCU (Universities and Colleges Union) is questioning why institutions are sacking staff to nominally save money while simultaneously investing in lavish new properties. Sheffield Hallam University recently announced the firing of 225 academics… just as they start to build a new campus in London as part of an £8bn development. These days, many universities are almost like hedge funds, spending money on a range of things – and education seems to be ever lower on the list of priorities, as I demonstrate in my book The Secret Lecturer.

In that same book I relate looking over my university’s website (with certain details changed to preserve anonymity) and puzzling over the wisdom of all this. “Betwixt the bromides – ‘own your future’, ‘unlock your potential’, ‘train to be a thought leader’ – there’s info on our gym, swimming pool, football and cricket teams, parking spaces, where to get food on campus, digital hubs and ‘touch-down spaces’. However – and call me Ol’ Professor Pernickety – there isn’t a single damn mention of education until you’ve scrolled through all the above. If a uni has one USP, surely it’s the education it provides. The gym may be good, but can it – or should it – compete with all the gyms that are out there already? And the only places to buy food on campus make the local burger van look like the Savoy Grill.”

So why is higher education up the proverbial creek financially? Foreign students have been put off by exorbitant visa fees and new draconian restrictions on the work they can undertake, according to Universities UK (UUK). Oxford University’s Migration Observatory has found that Brexit contributed to a 53% drop in EU students coming to Britain in 2021-22, which has deprived HE of much-needed cash now. Meanwhile, the Open University isn’t the only institution to have blamed the cost of living crisis for keeping away potential students not overly keen on spending at least three years in poverty. Tuition fees haven’t gone up since 2017, while the price of everything else has.

But some of the injuries are self-inflicted. Many universities don’t know the first thing about marketing themselves, a problem that’s dogged the sector for many years now. They fail to make the campus experience inclusive and safe for many students (see my book for numerous incidents of harassment, bullying and intimidation, often with racist, sexist and homophobic aspects). Nor do university leaders understand that bland management-speak and constantly droning on about employability is not necessarily the best way to recruit idealistic young people who still subscribe to the liberal humanist idea of higher education, which is about learning to think critically about the world in, as Terry Eagleton puts it, “the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future.” Further to this, the majority of students I teach understand the importance of learning and creativity for wellbeing, self-confidence, good citizenship and better communication with others.

Many anecdotes in The Secret Lecturer support these claims, as does a survey of 60,000 British students conducted a few years ago. Reasons for going to university such as having “passion” for “the subject I study”, to be “intellectually stimulated” and to learn “essential life skills” scored higher than “help me get a job” or “to earn more money in my future career”.

But amongst HE senior managers, to talk about anything but vocation and employability is about as fashionable as a space-hopper stuffed full of Cheese Footballs and bottles of Babycham. Which is partly why university doesn’t appeal to young people in the ways it did before.

HEPI readers can buy the Secret Lecturer with 33% off the RRP.

This post was edited on 29th May to reflect the fact that Sheffield Hallam University is not spending £8 billion on a new London campus, but is building a new campus as part of a development which will, overall, cost £8 billion.

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  1. It would be good to have a comment or two from a vice-chancellor or two.
    Ron Barnett

  2. John Bird says:

    And nobody would dare to tell students about the precarious nature of employment, assuming of course, there are jobs that have not been delegated to robots!

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