Nigel Thrift. Forgive the martial metaphor, but the English higher-education sector currently feels a bit like the British experience of the Second World War from September 1939 to May 1940. This was a period of relative but threatening calm before serious hostilities began, which came to be known here as “the phony war.” There is some time to go before the effects of all the changes that the British government is putting into place actually bite. However, when they do the consensus is that they will make a difference and that the difference may be considerable. Certainly 2012-13 could be a year of crisis as universities struggle to cope.
In the U.K., the government has historically imposed limits on the numbers of home students a university can take. Recently, however, the government has decided to free some student places from the usual planning constraints and to make these places available to other institutions. As a result, we are seeing an erosion of the positions of both the lower and middle parts of the university hierarchy. For example, the arrangements for 2012-13 will allow U.K. universities to compete, essentially without any limit, for all students with a specific high examination tariff. This could put pressure on universities in the middle of the hierarchy who may see these high-scoring students drifting away to higher ranked competitors, losing those middle-ranking universities not only revenue but also prestige. It could be a traumatic time as these middle-ranking universities are forced to concentrate more staff time on teaching and less staff time on research in order to maintain or improve their relative positions.
The effect of the recent release of a single data set listing those universities with large numbers of high tariff students is indicative. It has already begun to have a galvanizing effect. Thus certain universities with particularly high proportions of these students – Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, the London School of Economics, Bristol, Durham, University College London, and Warwick – are now being likened by the newspapers to the English “Ivy League.” And already we are seeing responses by middle-ranking universities. For example, some plan to offer fee rebates to attract these high-flying students, an interesting strategy but one which is bound to hit their bottom line and may have consequences for their reputations. Meanwhile all universities are having to think about how attractive they are to students and how to make the student experience (as it has come to be known) more efficacious. In other words, a major upheaval may now be under way in England with all kinds of unknown effects. The elephant in the room is probably research. It is unclear what effects these changes will have on research. Yet they could be striking. Take the case of the decisions of the best researchers in the middle tier about where to work. As yet, at least from the information that I have, there has been little response from these researchers to the new state of affairs. Very few of them so far seem to be considering a move to universities higher up the hierarchy. There may be several reasons for this, apart from the natural inertia that arises from living and having roots in a place. One is that they are suffering from a big fish in a small pond syndrome. They have comfortable conditions of work and see no incentive to move. Another is that they have not as yet realized the seriousness of the situation. Another is that they are hoping that it will all go away. There is that latest book or paper to finish, so why bother? Last, maybe it is just too early to see a response.
But, if the current course continues, there are probably only going to be 25 universities in England which will be genuinely safe havens for researchers. There could be a mass migration of the best with all kinds of consequences for the research ecology of England which have yet to be thought through.