Funding for the Future: Stage 2 Consultation Paper on the Funding of Teaching
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council’s (SHEFC’s) consultation on the funding of teaching. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with substantial experience of higher education from across Scotland and the UK.
The RSE welcomes the way SHEFC has undertaken its consultation on funding. It is inevitable that from time to time the Council will wish to implement change, but the consultation process will help to minimise damaging disruptions to the institutions and will serve to engage practitioners with the Council’s objectives. This is to be applauded. Likewise the Council’s decision to adopt a ‘core and margin’ approach is sensible since it will facilitate meaningful changes in response to policy priorities, whilst at the same time serving to maintain the core strengths of the education provision that already exists. Protecting academic standards will be key. In developing policy priorities, however, it is regrettable that no robust indicators of employability could be found for promoting courses with high levels of graduate employability.
The specific areas of consideration are addressed below:
Question A: What is the maximum percentage of funded provision which the Council should reallocate in any one year to support national policy objectives?
The answer to this question will be conditioned to some degree by the decisions that are taken on the later questions. However, the extent of re-allocation needs to be sufficient to provide credible incentives and to make a difference, while minimising destabilising effects and being capable of absorption for purpose. This argues for modest, phased changes – evolution rather than revolution.
It is reasonable to assume that the changes in relation to any policy priority might be planned in programmes of three or four years (see later), since this is the ‘production cycle’ of the institutions. On this basis the maximum reallocation that should be considered is 1%. A shift of 2% per year, for example, for say four years could result in a ‘movement’ of around 10,000 students. This would represent a ‘shift’ equivalent to the average size Scottish university every four years. Again, in terms of effective policy implementation, this would be quite challenging.
Question B: Should the Council fund the reallocation of funded places through withdrawing funded places from all, or selected, funded provision:
Option 1: all funded provision
The higher education sector is composed of mature institutions, which are well able to make sensible planning decisions in relation to a change in their market. Thus they will adjust their provision to achieve the best balance of provision and availability of resources. By contrast there is much evidence to indicate that ‘centralised planning’ does not work. It is massively consuming of resources and ‘nervous energy’, it is notoriously slow, and it generally comes up with the wrong answer.
Option 1 as stated, excludes "controlled provision" such as teacher and medical education. However, SHEFC has also hitherto identified a range of Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Computing subjects as "priority areas" in terms of responding to national needs for graduate skills, and has reflected this priority in ring-fencing certain operations of its funding mechanisms in these subject areas. While the current teaching funding review is likely to revisit some aspects of funding mechanisms affecting these "priorities", the very high priority for graduate supply in these subject areas continues unabated and indeed is accelerating, as is only to be expected in a healthy "knowledge based economy". It would be damaging for HE perceptions and relations with business and industry, therefore, were there to be any net withdrawal of funded places from the broad areas that support the wealth-creating economy, or from the universities that address that need effectively. Other than the "controlled" and "priority" subject mechanisms, the RSE is not aware of any other means of prioritisation that would likely be credible or acceptable. Our answer is therefore "Option 1, excluding controlled and priority provision". There will, of course, be a need to distinguish the withdrawal of funded places that are "filled" from the related SHEFC mechanism of withdrawal of places that remain "unfilled".
Question C: Which is the most appropriate mechanism for reallocating funded places?
Option 3: Through a bidding system
Option 3 should be capable of incorporating favourable elements of both Options 1 and 2, while minimising their disadvantages. In Option 3 the institutions themselves determine the extent of administrative burden they undertake in relation to their opportunities to contribute to fulfilling the Wider Access agenda.
Question D: What is the most appropriate assessment timescale for determining the reallocation of funded places?
Option 2: a specified number of years
It is very important to provide the institutions with a reasonable planning horizon, so that changes can be implemented smoothly and without undue disruption. A three to four year planning process would be most appropriate, but with annual monitoring, review and adjustment. However, at present several recent developments are causing significant and probably ongoing volatility in student recruitment "markets" which suggests that the moment is not favourable for entrenching any significant trend in the transfer of teaching resources. A gradual approach is, therefore, likely to prove most acceptable.
Question E: Whilst recognising that the new wider access regional fora have only recently been established, what is your view on their effectiveness as a vehicle for promoting wider participation through collaboration?
Historically, the success of the regional initiatives to ‘organise’ wider access has been patchy. Where wider access arrangements across institutions have worked they have tended to reflect the strength of the desire for collaboration on the part of the institutions and their staff. It is too early to judge whether the new regional fora are effective. However, it can be anticipated that where institutional collaboration has worked well in the past it will continue to do so.
In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (October 1996); Raising the Standard – White Paper on Education and Skills Development in Scotland (February 1997); Comments on the Recommendations of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (September 1997); Review of Postgraduate Education (February 1999); Funding for the Future: A Consultation on the Funding of Teaching (March 1999); and the Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance (September 1999)