Going For Broke: Do We Really Care About Education?

Alison Kennell, University Secretary at York St John University, argues that universities need to set a better example when it comes to financial self-regulation.

Education funding is in crisis – and I am not talking about the recent report from the Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee, which found that students need a fairer deal after school, or the scope of the post-18 review.

The state school system is literally going broke. Our primary schools are chronically underfunded and many are no longer able to make ends meet. In some cases, the position is so severe that headteachers have been forced to reduce the length of the school week to reduce staffing costs.

The plight of primary school funding is borne out by my own experience; as a Governor in a state school, our most regular discussion is how to fund the repair or replacement of the large, leaky roof. We have classroom furniture that at best could be regarded as ‘shabby chic’ – original 1960s melamine with plenty of character.  Teachers have regularly forked out for glue sticks, post-its and paint for their classrooms from their own, meagrely-lined pockets, given the real limitations of school funds.

Against this backdrop, the debate over senior pay in higher education feels, frankly, absurd. With the final publication of the CUC Remuneration Code in recent weeks, universities across the UK are reviewing the governance of senior pay to ensure that it meets rigorous and defensible standards. They are also preparing for the publication of the OfS accounts direction, which will define how information on senior pay should be reflected in published accounts.

The published Code is significantly watered down from earlier drafts. Despite the excellent work of John Rushforth, input from AHUA colleagues and many others, the published Code has been (unsurprisingly) heavily criticised by UCU and received (at best) a lukewarm reception from Nicola Dandridge at the OfS.

Analysis of responses to the published draft shows that a significant minority of sector respondents still oppose even this relatively benign move towards enhanced self-regulation of senior pay and benefits, and greater transparency and accountability for the use of public funds. This is the case, even though high profile cases have fuelled negative perception of universities awash with cash, seen to be making poor decisions on how best to use valuable resources and certainly not reflecting students’ interests in value for money. The recent Halpin Review on the governance of senior pay at the University of Bath makes for interesting reading in this context.

The Department for Education and the OfS have some challenging tasks ahead, as do individual schools and universities. The higher education sector should be leading the way in demonstrating that it understands its privileged position within the wider education sector, enjoying significant autonomy and using that autonomy wisely.

Universities should be providing a role model for other sectors in the transparency and fairness of its operations. We need to self-regulate effectively if we want to justify continued levels of funding in a wider social context where the impact of just a few thousand pounds extra would make a significant difference to the classrooms and education of our primary school children. If we don’t, there are surely others who will regulate for us.