First full day of the Universities UK conference. UUK is the Vice-Chancellors organisation and the V-Cs were gathering in Edinburgh with finances very much at the top of the agenda. And there was little good news to report.
The opening presentation was from Fiona Hyslop the Minister for Education and Life Long Learning in the Scottish Parliament. She outlined some of the challenges facing higher education in Scotland – falling funding was one but the decline in the number of eighteen year olds is also a factor. With redundancy a feature of the current economic climate, Scottish institutions will need to refocus on retraining adults returning to the sector or entering the sector for the first time. A natural progression is to develop courses specifically for business to ensure the graduates are appropriately trained for a given sector. The emphasis has thus far been on knowledge transfer. Fiona Hyslop was promoting knowledge exchange – a two way process where knowledge is transferred to business but where business defines the skills that it needs. Whilst this will bring more people into HE, the question is whether this can be delivered in a cost effective manner – how much effort is involved in designing the bespoke parts of courses over required to tailor an existing provision to an industry’s requirements?
The second presentation looked at the situation in the US. The recession has seen a growing number of students remaining at home when they study and a significant number of students electing to defer their study. There have been severe cuts in some states which have led to major changes in policy in public institutions – increases in fees, courses ceasing and increasing class sizes. Some believe that the sector will never recover from the impact. Private institutions which relay on endowment income are affected to a greater extent. A number of institutions have had to borrow to offset the falling income in addition to taking cost cutting measures.
The Obama administration is taking steps to prop up the education sector. A significant amount of funding is being pumped into the sector to try and maintain levels of funding, to grow research in specific areas and to grow the community colleges in general and completion in those institutions specifically. Partnerships with commerce and industry again featured prominently in the plan. The US administration has chosen to invest in the sector. It will be interesting to hear what David Lammy has to offer the UK sector when he speaks to the conference on Thursday.