The trouble with the Matt Yglesias column with which I took issue last week was, to put it most simply, that he gave university administrators the blanket benefit of the doubt for actually having the best interests of their a students in mind. Sometimes, I’m sure, this is the case. But not only is this not necessarily the case, it is often absolutely not the case. For example, Middlesex University’s recent decision to shut down their quite prestigious and unique Philosophy department not because it wasn’t doing well – it’s financially solvent and highly regarded by all possible measures of “quality” – but because the university could make more money by shifting resources elsewhere is the sort of decision which only a profit-minded institution would ever make.
Now, that’s not to say Middlesex is a corporation – it’s not — just that the people who run it think that way. By the same token, the people who run my own university, the nation’s flagship public institution of higher learning, think with the market because they’re all private industry types, appointed by an in-the-market-we-trust governor. As the “Save Middlesex Philosophy” people explain , the justification cited for shutting the department down
“is primarily financial – but it is not a question of the financial sustainability of the subject area, as usually understood. Rather, it is about the additional income that the university will receive from the government if it shifts to teaching more students in other kinds of subject. The dean of Arts & Education told Philosophy staff on 26 April that the university will generate more revenue if it shifts its resources to other kind of subjects – from what is called ‘Band D’ to ‘Bands B and C’ students. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) funds universities for students at four different levels depending on the subject studied by the student. ‘Band A’ students (eg clinical medicine) receive the most funds, ‘Band D’ students (classroom based activities), receive the least. Bands B and C involve various sorts of laboratory or workshop/studio based activities. The move from D to C is one towards what are often thought of as more ‘vocational’ subjects, involving a greater degree of ‘training’.
In short, because they’ll get more money from the government by switching to more vocational subjects and away from classroom academics, they are doing so. As the Save Middlesex people put it,
Universities in Britain now believe they can, and should, set up and close down production in areas of university teaching and research in exactly the same way as with any other kind of commodity, in response to short-term changes in HEFCE’s funding policies. They have accepted HEFCE’s use of crude financial instruments to carry out the government’s ‘skills and training’ oriented policy objectives for the universities.
And as Lenin’s Tomb points out,
“There is also an element of asset-stripping involved. The UK’s higher education system is subject to a ‘Research Assessment Exercise’ every five years, which awards funds to departments depending on how successful they have been…Middlesex philosophy needed no endorsement from such a shambolic exercise to prove its worth – nevertheless, it obtained the government’s blessing, and further funds were released. Those funds continue to be disbursed until the next assessment is carried out, even if the department closes. Thus, the officially measured success of Middlesex Philosophy has given the university administrators a reason to close it down.” (“Save Middlesex” again: “Middlesex will continue to receive RAE money for Philosophy for six more years, until August 2016, whether it employs any philosophers or not. The total sum is likely to be close to £1 million.”)