An Open Letter to the authors of the Senate Paper on the “Academic Implications of Changes to University Funding”

To Professor Foskett and the authors of the Senate Paper on the “Academic
Implications of Changes to University Funding”,

Firstly, I would like to ask for a reply that at least acknowledges the points
raised here, even if you don’t respond to every single one, to show that you aren’t
sending the same standardised email to all of the students who email you about this
subject. Unless, of course, that’s because you are?

I accept the need for cuts to budgets, and I think that a lot of the details of the
Senate Paper are reasonable. However, I think that some of the reasoning behind your
decision is absurd and cannot be used to justify the cuts that you propose.

In section 2.4 of the Senate Paper, you state that “a recommendation was made to
reduce Keele’s staff costs as a percentage of income from 65% to 58%”. I don’t
understand why this arbitrary figure is necessary. How does reducing the proportion
to 58% make the University more financially sustainable? What costs will go up as a
result? Do you plan to tell anyone about this? The costs of providing courses may
need to be cut, but this should not involve cutting entire courses.

There is also continual misuse of figures throughout the paper. In Section,
you say that because PEAK is reducing its contribution levels from a loss of -29.8%
to -1.5%, this means that “throughout the forecast period […] the projected costs
of PEAK remain consistently in excess of its projected income”. This contribution
level in 2013/14 is within both the likely inflation rate and the 3% statistical
variance rate, so to draw such strongly-worded conclusions is strongly misleading.
Assuming that the forecast period runs to the end of 2013/14 (and this is never
explicitly defined in the Paper), this would be a cut of over 25% in 4 years at
most. I think it would be much fairer to ask the Faculty of Natural Sciences to
attempt similar savings than to close a department that has made such significant
cuts already. However, we won’t know what’s fair or right without a Philosophy
department, so I suppose there’s no point thinking about it.

Regardless of the figures, I still find it deeply concerning that in section 4.3 of
the Senate Paper, where you set out the Guiding Principles for how you intend to
“achieve the required savings while minimizing the impact on the academic shape of
the University, and its constituent strengths”. Proposals to close educational
programs and research departments clearly fail to do this. I also question how Keele
can call itself a university when it doesn’t consider the academic value of a
course, as well as the financial value that you estimate in section Section
7.1.3 says that the Faculty of Natural Sciences should work to achieve savings
“while protecting the Faculty’s broad academic base”. Why should the other
Faculties, that provide less obvious commercial opportunities, not receive the same
level of academic respect?

This all goes against the fact that course costs can’t be
standardised to fit an arbitrary figure. Section 5.7 acknowledges that “the cost
structures of laboratory-based subjects are necessarily different from those of
classroom-based subjects”. Unfortunately, the rest of the document, and your entire
approach to cutting costs, ignores this. Section states that you predict
that staff costs will rise to 91.4% by 2013/14. Despite this being the only part of
the Paper where you use such predicted figures as evidence, this suggests to me that
you don’t understand that teaching different subjects requires different methods.
Would you prefer that the proportion of costs be altered more towards classroom
equipment? What if the department bought a load of microscopes to read the key texts
with? Would this make keeping the program more justifiable? Does Plato look
different under a microscope to in a book? I thought the Philosophy department would
be the best people to ask if the objects we use to look at things alter the meanings
that we see in them, but there seems to be a logistical problem now that it’s going
to disappear. Maybe the scientists or business managers can tell me. Philosophy is
about ideas, and it’s far easier to learn about them by discussing them with experts
who have devoted their educations and careers to studying these ideas. If these
lecturers have been forced to find long-term jobs at other universities, then there
will be no-one for the current students to discuss these ideas with.

The need for cuts is unavoidable, and I am very glad that the University intends to
take action. However, I think that the plan presented in the Senate Paper
deliberately misuses statistics, some of which are only forecasts, considers only
the commercial value of academic research and ignores any educational, intellectual
or promotional value, and asks too little of the natural sciences. The Senate Paper
and the Working Group seem to want to reduce the number of lecturers at Keele
University for no justifiable or understandable reason. The Paper acknowledges that
these proposals expose the University to legal action. I think the severity of the
proposals will lead to legal action from prospective students who will be refused an
education, current students whose lecturers will want to leave, and those lecturers
who no longer have a future at Keele.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Willetts, second year student doing Politics and International Relations.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Education valued in financial figures alone

This is the blurb I wrote for the campaign to save the Philosophy programme at Keele University. Can we really put a price on an education? How do you decide on its value?

My name’s Andrew Willetts, in my second year of studying Politics and International Relations at Keele University, and this is why I think we need to keep Philosophy alive.

The humanities are founded on philosophy. The capacity for self-awareness, being able to ask “who am I? Why am I here?” is what sets us apart from the other creatures on the face of this planet. Philosophy created the other sections of humanities, such as Plato being one of the first people to think about how societies operate, i.e. political philosophy. The academic study of criminology was founded by 2 philosophers.

If the senior management want to push the University away from its roots to being a science-based university that can provide scientists to advance the cause of business, then maybe they should be looking at how to save money in other areas as well. How does not paying any member of staff over £100,000 per year sound?

However, for those of us who see a university as a place of learning and education, then the value of philosophy and the Philosophy programme cannot be measured in financial figures alone. Can we really put a price on an education? How do you decide on its value?

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

How to bankrupt a country’s educational system

Universities are having their funding cut like every part of the British Government, aside from the National Health Service. The need to reduce costs is understandable, but the scale of the cuts and the details of tuition fee rises will damage the quality of education in this country in both the short- and long-term.

The idea of raising tuition fees is questionable, but if the government does implement such funding cuts, then it seems to be the only workable way of replacing the money that the universities need to operate.  The BBC News website has posted an interesting article about this, which suggests that graduates may end up repaying twice the amount that they originally borrowed.

However, the details of the spreadsheet created by some of the country’s leading accountants (Student Loan Repayment Timetable) are even more interesting. The document assumes that from a starting salary of £25,000, a graduate will need to receive a salary increase of £1,000 every year for 30 years, on top of normal wage increases. This also assumes that the graduate will never lose their job, and be earning over £80,000 for the last 11 years of the repayment lifetime. This set of circumstances is probably unachievable for the vast majority of students who are subject to the raised fees. However, this graduate would still have £14,512 written off!

If 20 graduates reach roughly the same level of (unlikely) circumstances, then their debts to be written off will total around £300,00. The most recent number of graduate numbers for the UK that I could find was for 2008, when 334,890 students graduated. If 50% of these were under the new tuition fee system and were paid the same amount as the example from the spreadsheet, then the debts to be written off would be £2,429,961,840. The numbers of graduates will probably increase from the 2008 levels, and the amount that most graduates will have written off is likely to be significantly higher. My guess is that the debts to write off could easily be 5 times that amount, since I imagine most students will not receive the same unrealistic wage rises as set out in the spreadsheet.

This leads to the main problem with the new tuition fee system, in my opinion. If the graduate debts are written off after 30 years, who will pay for this? Will the Student Loan Company have to accept it? Will the cost be passed to the universities? Will it have to be accepted by the government, so increasing the national debt? £2billion is a very conservative estimate, but I think any government would struggle to cope with suddenly having this amount added to the national debt every year.

Most universities are already suffering. They are forced to cut millions of pounds from their budgets to ensure that they don’t go bankrupt. The amount of money that universities are receiving next year has been cut again. However, many universities are beginning to take drastic measures already. Keele University is considering closing the PhilosophyProgramme and the Centre for Professional Ethics at Keele. The PEAK is a world leader in medical ethics, according to a major contributor to the British Medical Journal’s Journal of Medical Ethics. This is according to a paper submitted to one of the University’s main decision making bodies by some of the most senior academics and administrators, including the Dean of Natural Sciences, the Dean of Health, the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Director of Human Resources, the Director of Finance and one of the Deputy Vice-Chancellors. The paper is here for those who want to look – Senate Paper.

The paper suggests that certain elements of the PEAK could be incoporated into the Law School, although this seems to suggest that doctors should focus on avoiding being sued, rather than on what is ethical. The paper also acknowledges some of the effects of closing such an academically important department, such as  impacts on academic standards, employee-student relations, equal opportunities, existing commitments, and student recruitment, and a greater likelihood of legal action. The paper also states that the University is receiving a cut of 25% to the money related to teaching at the Schools of Nursing and Medicine, and then states that it will be taking action to avoid passing these costs to the Schools (page 5 of the document). Although I do not want to seem like a conspiracy theorist, this seems very suspicious, especially when 3 pages later the paper acknowledges that “the cost structures of laboratory-based subjects are necessarily different from those of classroom-based subjects” (page 8). Another worrying section is “  The [Working] Group noted that undergraduate FTEs currently associated with Philosophy could be redistributed to other programmes within the School without requiring additional resource, thereby protecting income.

This has provoked outrage from students, alumini, and staff at Keele, and students and staff at other universities as well, who are organising a campaign to save this vital part of the University. One of the main concerns is for those currently studying Philosophy, because although the department will be kept open while there are still students on the course, their education will almost certainly suffer. Once the department stops taking new students and the staff know that in 2 or 3 years they will lose their jobs, I’d imagine that most of the lecturers would try find new jobs straight away, rather than waiting for their time to run out. If the lecturers were all able to find other jobs, which is not guaranteed with other universities also cutting jobs, this could leave students currently in their first year with no lecturers at all in their final year!

The rushed nature of the changes to higher education funding, with a political desire to find short-term savings, is leading to long-term harm to education, both now and in the future. After all, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Nietzsche and Sartre are all irrelevant to the government’s holy grail of ‘enterprise’…..

Posted in Coalition, Government, Politics | Leave a comment

Bonfire of the (useful) quangos

The reformation and scrapping of many of the quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (quangos) was one of the Conservative Party’s promises from the election campaign. Some of the quangos can clearly be moved to other departments, such as West Northamptonshire Development Corporation, which is to be placed under local authority control. I can also understand selling off the Horserace Totalisator Board and getting rid of the Government Hospitality Advisory Committee on the purchase of Wines. The majority of the quangos are also likely to be saved it seems, such as the BBC, Channel 4 (apparently the government has some control due to it sharing the licence fee), the Ordnance Survey, and the Administration of Radioactive Substances Advisory Committee.

However, some of the quangos that are to be scrapped entirely does concern me. According to the BBC News article on the subject, Franics Maude MP, the minister in charge of the review, said that the review intended to improve accountability as well as saving money. The quangos that I’ve listed here are to be scrapped entirely, i.e. no mergers, no moving functions to another department or organisation, or even making them into charities, just a complete end to their work. I consider these quangos to all have some important function in our country: the Audit Commission, the Standards Board for England, the National Tenant Voice, and even the UK Chemical Weapons Convention National Authority Advisory Committee. The Audit Commission is supposed to scrutinize all areas of public spending, so while it may cost a large amount to run, it should also save a lot more money as well. I fail to see how this is increasing accountability.

When some quangos such as the British Wool Marketing Board and the Advisory Committee on Packaging are kept in some form or other and those previously mentioned are to be scrapped, I get quite worried about the Coalition’s priorities for this country. While some of these quangos to be scrapped do cost money to run, I feel that some of the quangos are more important to public life and provide necessary services and better value for money than others, and yet they are scrapped at the expense of less important ones.

This article is based on the UK Government’s list of the quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, some of which will be transferred to or merged with other government-run organisations, while some are to be scrapped. Here’s the link to the document that was the latest at the time of writing.

Horserace Totalisator Board
Posted in Coalition, Government, Politics | 1 Comment