Two questions have been uppermost in my mind since arriving at Royal Holloway: how will the College respond to the likely cuts in public funding and what will be the impact of Lord Browne’s review into higher education funding and student finance? Many staff, students and their families have asked me the same questions.
Although we can expect announcements on both issues soon, it will take some time for the detail and implications to become clear. Lord Browne’s recommendations are likely to require primary legislation, whilst HEFCE, our funding body, will take some time to work out how it will pass on funding reductions to institutions. Thus, there will continue to be a period of uncertainty for some time stretching into 2011.
One thing that is certain however is the likely scale of public funding reduction. There is every indication that reductions will be significant and higher education will be no exception. The impact on our sector will be severe, even with the possibility of increased student contribution to the cost of their education. Traditional approaches to managing financial pressures, such as post freezes, trimming expenditure, delaying major projects and seeking early retirements, are unlikely to be sufficient. We will need to give very careful consideration as to how we respond.
Our starting point is one of strength. Through prudent use of resources, good management and high quality staff, the College achieved a modest surplus in 2009-2010. The Times Higher places the College amongst the top 100 institutions in the world. The estate and College infrastructure is broadly in good shape, with plans to tackle a number of problem areas. These factors are underpinned by excellent staff and some of the best students from the UK and overseas. The best way to face an uncertain future is to start from a position of strength such as ours. But the clock is ticking and we need to start work on options for the future so that we are well positioned to respond when the full implications of the spending review and Lord Browne’s recommendations become clear.
The planning of our response is being overseen by Council, our governing body, and will involve consultation with staff and students, trade unions and the Students’ Union. To develop our response, I have asked our Vice-Principals to lead four work streams.
Professor Geoff Ward will lead a work stream on academic priorities and planning, whilst Professor Adam Tickell will lead a work stream on the professional services (central and faculty administration, IT services, Library and trading activities). Many of the issues these work streams address will require action in the short-term if our financial position is not to rapidly deteriorate.
The remaining two work streams will deal with longer-term issues. Professor Rob Kemp will lead a work stream on how we conduct teaching and learning in the future, including also the overall student experience. Professor Adam Tickell will lead a work stream on preparation for the REF (Research Excellence Framework).
Whilst the work streams will have to manage the uncertainty surrounding funding and government policy, three issues are clear.
First, the scale of the financial challenge means that we cannot consider cost-cutting alone; we must address ways in which we can quickly expand income from our core activities, and find ways to generate new sources of income.
Second, if the fee cap and student number controls are lifted, as seems likely in the Browne report, we will be in a highly competitive environment for the best students. In such a situation, we must continue to improve our National Student Survey (NSS) performance; create a clearer message as to the value of a Royal Holloway, University of London degree; and ensure there are clearer routes to graduate employability for all. This is not about changing the fundamental nature of the type of education we offer, but rather helping students better understand and benefit from the link between our programmes and their future employment.
Third, our response cannot simply be to ask staff to do more. We must fundamentally review our activities to ensure that they are at the core of our academic mission or directly support that mission.
The challenge ahead is significant and we should not underestimate the likely impact of the announcements to be made. However Royal Holloway is in good shape and we are well positioned to respond.
11 October 2010