It’s like rain on your wedding day

Originally published on wonkhe

Behind the army of wonkery that this blog serves is a body of academic understanding about policy and political goals that helps us understand and influence those around us. Some the academics involved would have us believe that there are only really four policy goals that get invoked, invariably coming at us in multiple disguises – equality, security, liberty, and efficiency. All of them are undeniably desirable until we consider them from multiple angles, or worse still, set one up against another.

The cheapest of all- in all senses of the word- is efficiency. As long as there’s been a state, politicians have been enemies of waste within it, grasping for efficiency savings as a way of making their numbers add up or delivering magically more for less without having to actually do anything.  Of course, one woman’s efficiency is another woman’s cuts – so often, efficiency drives fall on the sword of resistant cultures or hidden benefits that come from people and services that only manifest themselves when they are taken away. Worst still, efficiency’s positive connotations can be easily flipped if you frame it correctly.

Ask anyone if they want rid of waste in the NHS, such that spending on it is used in the most efficient way to deliver the best patient outcomes for everyone, and we all say aye. But rationally threaten the closure of a hyperlocal A&E on this basis and prospective parliamentary candidates jump on the opposition bandwagon faster than you can say “brace”. And you won’t find many universities proudly trumpeting how few academics they have per student, or schools boasting about their massive class sizes, even if they could prove that on balance that efficiency was in the interests of their learners.

But for all the critiques of efficiency, it is at least possible and probable that parts of UK HE waste money. Some services are overstaffed. Some processes are arcane. Some purchasing is poorly done. In an age of austerity this is problematic enough- and whether customer or partner, it has to be in the student interest to ensure that as much of their deferred £9k is spent on the things that matter than the things that don’t. The usual cries of the UK left would denounce almost all drives to efficiency in UK HE as cuts to be resisted, but it seems to me that this just won’t do, particularly when it’s students’ money that it’s being done with.

All of which is made more interesting when we consider the current student fees and funding settlement. It’s a relatively open secret that from time to time, Treasury officials look at the bulging balance sheet of UKHE and argue that some of the coffers should be spent. They glance at VC salaries and loss making catering operations and argue that something should be done, some lever should be pulled to cause some efficiency to enter the system. “Cuts are coming to Universities” gets leaked to the Telegraph and the Times every other month, but then it never pans out the way they thought it would, manifesting instead as an unseemly row between scientists and researchers protecting the research budget, and social engineers protecting WP funding.

And why does it never happen? The short answer is that by switching to an income contingent loan based voucher scheme for undergrads, the Government has given away the last efficiency levers it once had. Even if it believed that HEIs were wasting the £9k, it’s powerless. There’s barely any HEFCE money left to cut (and that is being scrapped over as above). It can’t order Universities to be more efficient with it. Universities won’t compete to do more for less- it’s too painful to do, makes their league tables look bad and destroys their argument that fees should up. And even if HEFCE believed that it was in students’ interests to do it, it too is powerless to cause it to happen. In short, there is simply no incentive to cut the fat and so fat they will become.

Ironically, about the only thing that would work would be to cut the headline fee down from £9k to, say, £6k- reducing government borrowing, reducing student borrowing, causing little pain for new universities that have given much of the £3k difference away in fee waivers and bursaries, and forcing fatter Russell Group players to find some slack in the system. Imagine – a policy whittled on the back of a Conference Speech fag packet in 2011. Who would have thought… it figures?

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