Monday, December 18, 2017

Are UK universities heading over the cliff?

The Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University has organised a public lecture series, "The Future of the University." The motivation is worthy.
In the face of this rapidly changing landscape, urging instant adaptive response, it is too easy to discount fundamental questions. What is the university now for? What is it, what can it be, what should it be? Are the visions of Humboldt and Newman still valid? If so, how?
The poster is a bit bizarre. How should it be interpreted?

Sadly, it is hard for me to even imagine such a public event happening in Australia.

Last week one of the lectures was given by Peter Coveney,  a theoretical chemist at University College London, on funding for science. His abstract is a bit of rant with some choice words.
Funding of research in U.K. universities has been changed beyond recognition by the introduction of the so-called "full economic cost model". The net result of this has been the halving of the number of grants funded and the top slicing of up to 50% and beyond of those that are funded straight to the institution, not the grant holder. Overall, there is less research being performed. Is it of higher quality because the overheads are used to provide a first rate environment in which to conduct the research?  
We shall trace the pathway of the indirect costs within U.K. universities and look at where these sizeable sums of money have ended up.  
The full economic cost model is so attractive to management inside research led U.K. universities that the blueprint is applied willy-nilly to assess the activities of academics, and the value of their research, regardless of where their funding is coming from. We shall illustrate the black hole into which universities have fallen as senior managers seek to exploit these side products of modern scientific research in U.K. Meta activities such as HEFCE's REF consume unconscionable quantities of academics' time, determine university IT and other policies, in the hope of attracting ever more income, but have done little to assist with the prosecution of more and better science. Indeed, it may be argued that they have had the opposite effect.  
Innovation, the impact on the economy resulting from U.K. universities' activities, shows few signs of lifting off. We shall explore the reasons for this; they reside in a wilful confusion of universities' roles as public institutions with the overwhelming desire to run them as businesses. Despite the egregious failure of market capitalism in 2008, their management cadres simply cannot stop themselves wanting to ape the private sector.
Some of the talk material is in a short article in the Times Higher Education Supplement. The slides for the talk are here.  I thank Timothee Joset, who attended the talk, for bringing it to my attention.

1 comment:

  1. The small print on the poster says the image is from a movie production of "Faust". That's Mephistopheles, who persuades Faust to trade his soul for knowledge.