Friday, 5 December 2008

Och no, not our universities!

Much worried I was by the reporting in the journals of record of our modern age about the penury in which our universities find themselves these days (especially since it is my misfortune to know an academic or two and the anecdotal evidence doesn't match the reportage).

The Herald reported Gap in funding means Scottish universities 'lag behind'
The Scotsman had it that Universities in England beat Scots for funds
The BBC was asserting that Universities in Scotland ... are losing ground to those in England

All of this was based on a report produced by Universities UK on the impact of devolution on university funding, the news release for which stated:
Although higher education is growing in all four parts of the UK, England has started to move markedly ahead in key areas, including research funding, student numbers and international student income

Holy Jiggling Batman!

Except it’s not true. How can I be so sure? Well, I read the report (cunning devil). If you were just to read the text of the report you’d find yourself alarmed, worried, concerned, and three quarters whiffled by the devastation about to be wreaked upon Scotland’s Higher Education sector. You might even find yourself demanding immediate action and a wee jaunt in a helicopter. If you look at the figures in the report, however, you might see it differently. The latest figures in the report are from 2006 and I’m only going to use the figures in the report, not introduce anything new:

Page 39,
Population of England – 50,763,000
Population of Scotland – 5,117,000
So Scotland’s population in 2006 was 10% of England’s, give or take a few fractions.

Student Numbers
Page 42
HE students in England – 1,936,420 (3.8% of England’s population)
HE students in Scotland – 215,830 (4.2% of Scotland’s population)
HE in FE students in England – 122,150 (0.24% of England’s population)
HE in FE students in Scotland – 49,885 (0.97% of Scotland’s population)

Postgrad students at university:
England 0.9% of population
Scotland 1% of population

Academic Staff
Pages 45 and 46:
England has seen a drop in the percentage of academic staff in clinical medicine (12% down to 10%) and in biosciences (7% down to 6%) since 1996, Scotland has maintained medicine (11%) and biosciences (10%).

Research Funding
Pages 46 and 47:
Scotland wins 12.5% (monetary value) of research grants and contracts from the research councils – above the 10.2% we would expect if resources were just shared equally, indicating that Scottish universities’ research is better than average (nowhere else punches above weight).

Scottish universities are also ahead in research grants from charities; bang on average in research money from business; and ahead in research money from EU sources.

Research Students
Page 48
Shocking news here that Scotland has lost 0.4% of market share in research studentships since 1996. England, though, has lost 1.5%, and Wales has lost 0.9% - it’s Northern Ireland that’s coming on strong, getting up to 2.4% from a negligible base. In fact, Scotland had dropped sharply in the middle and is coming back up, Wales and England had both increased before dropping away.

Teaching Income
Page 49
Teaching income (teaching grants, regulated fees and other fees) per full-time-equivalent student in England is £5,590 – in Scotland the figure is £6,044 – Scottish universities better funded to the tune of £454 per student. Scotland is also ahead of Wales and ahead of Northern Ireland.

International Students
Page 55
Scotland has an international student population just as healthy as England’s (15% to England’s 15.6%)

On page 7, though, the report states that

The overall increase in international students has particularly favoured
England, especially the south-east.

A wee discussion

So that, you would think kind of puts things in a wee bit of a different perspective. Let’s just ice the cake, though:

Page 10:

The impact of deferred variable fees in England will increase the resources available to institutions in England, compared with the other three countries, particularly Scotland. If Scotland and Wales maintain their policies on fees their spending on higher education will be disadvantaged.
Tell you what, I’ll lay you odds that deferred variable fees in England will result in rapidly diminishing state support for Higher Education. The Government in London, whatever colour it may be at any particular time, will turn down the tap on the money flows, forcing universities to charge higher fees. There will come a critical juncture where some universities just can’t keep going and there will be a splitting of the ways – some universities (Russell Group, perhaps) will become entirely divorced from Government and will operate as businesses while others become the poor sisters, the state universities. Whether this is desirable or not is, I suppose, just a matter of opinion.

Page 37:
The constraints on the use of these powers are practical or political: the difficulties of doing something different to England, possible implications (departing from the gold standard of British university degrees), and external factors (such as the Bologna process). How long these constraints will continue is an open question, especially if the UK/English standard either loses its lustre, or becomes unaffordable for the devolved administrations.
Who could possibly think that the English degree represents a higher quality than a Scottish degree or that there is a UK/English standard? Remarkable, really, to downplay a Scottish degree when talking about the Bologna process which will bring the European Higher Education Area ideal closer to the Scottish model than the English model.

Also from page 37:

A clear trend is already visible, with the higher education sector in England becoming larger and better funded than that in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Although higher education is growing in all four parts of the United Kingdom, England is starting to move markedly ahead in key areas, including research funding, student numbers and international student income.
Patently untrue when the actual figures given in the report are given a glance. What marks would a student get if she handed in her work with such glaring inaccuracies?

In essence, the actual figures in the report give a lie to the text in the report and cannot be said to support the contention in the news release that accompanied the report. Perhaps that’s why Universities Scotland distanced itself from the conclusions of the report, according to the Herald:

"The policy of English universities has been to move closer to an American model and away from a European model. That has been England's choice and Scotland has chosen to remain in a more European tradition.
"We do not accept that this has made Scotland's university sector weaker. England has just chosen to be different. This is what devolution means."

Just to put the cherry on it - this was before we had the great good fortune to elect an SNP Government in Scotland...

Mind how you go!


Shirley said...

Do the numbers you give take account of the difference between a 3 year degree and a 4 year degree?

Calum Cashley said...

They're annual figures. Taken over the study period of a degree, Scots are even better funded.