financial crisis,  higher ed

The new academic context



My starting point for this post is that the financial crisis and changes in funding are going to radically alter the higher education environment within the UK. In this post I want to set out the context within which academics will have to work from now on.

There are two things to point out: the current climate may see these changes become a reality, but they are also the culmination of a number of trends that have been occurring over the past twenty years or so; I want to set out the new context in an objective manner, and to avoid ascribing value to these changes. This is the way I think it will be, for good or ill. In the next post I'll try and explore the implications of these changes from an ed tech perspective.

The following list is based on watching discussions in the mainstream media, blog posts, twitter conversations and my own work. It could be I'm wrong about these, or indeed for many people they have been the reality for a long time anyway, but I feel it's worth setting them out to get a clear picture of the environment which we will need to operate within.

Greater accountability – this is really the over-arching one. When academics are largely being funded by students debt, and when universities have to cope with smaller budgets, then they academic activity needs to be accounted for and linked to some funding.

Funded research only – following on from the above research activity is likely to be on allocated, externally funded (or internal strategic) projects only. Time for individual, autonomous research that is not directly funded or related to teaching will largely disappear.

Limited general scholarly activity – there is a form of unwritten agreement of reciprocal activity in higher education that is largely uncosted. Reviewing articles, examining students, giving presentations, giving feedback on project proposals – all of these are essential for the functioning of the current system. But they are not evenly distributed and some people can find themselves in almost constant demand from other institutions. While a certain level of this activity will be permitted, and encouraged even, my guess is that it will be limited, as universities come to view every day an individual is doing a staff development talk at another uni as one where they are paying their salary and getting no direct return.

Cost as primary deciding factor – this is one that has definitely been around for a while but is likely to reach its apotheosis now. Cost has always been one of a number of factors to consider, for example when putting on a new course or conducting some research. Other factors such as academic credibility, long term potential, variation in offering and academic freedom have also come into the mix. Increasingly only proposals that demonstrate a reasonable return on investment will be countenanced.

Institutional focus – 30 years or so ago it was possible to view the function of universities as employing academics. Smart people needed a job, but they were pretty much left to their own devices, researching what they wanted, teaching occasionally and often being absent from their institution for long periods. Their affiliation could be seen as being to their discipline. This has been changing for a long time (and was never true for all academics anyway) and we will now see a much closer alliance to the host institution. 

As I mentioned, these have been trends over recent years anyway, and what we will see now is their culmination. It is also the case that there will be some variation between universities and individuals as to the degree to which they are experienced, but in general this is the context within which academics will operate. In the next post I'll explore what this means from an educational technology perspective.

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