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In days gone by vice-chancellors used to boast about how many cranes their campus featured (see subtext 9). These days, their prevailing rally cry seems to be ‘It’s definitely not us’, as they rush to reassure their students, staff and other interested parties that they are not one of the three universities that is close to bankruptcy – perhaps because of the very cranes, and associated building projects.
Of the universities in the North West, one of which is allegedly in this unfortunate position, Bolton’s VC George E Holmes was quick off the mark to let people know how healthy his, er, his university’s finances were via the media, while our very own Mark E Smith (readers may wonder whether a middle name beginning with an ‘E’ is a prerequisite to be VC of a North-Western uni) chose to share the good news that it is someone else in his recent all-staff meeting. No doubt other VCs will follow, though there has thus far been a conspicuous silence from the University of Cumbria, which has been running at a loss according to the most recent set of accounts available on its website, and whose financial woes were highlighted by The Guardian as long ago as January (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jan/30/fears-university-closures-office-for-students).
Among all these denials of bad fortune, there seem to be few VCs willing to stick their necks out and talk about what a colossally stupid idea it is to run universities as if they were part of a market, and treat education as a tradeable commodity like cheese. If a university were allowed to close because of bankruptcy, a number of media sources have pointed out this would have a huge impact not only on current students, but would also lead to hundreds if not thousands of job losses, and – for universities in smaller towns or cities – could devastate the local economy. The tarnished reputation of degrees from a failed university may also impact on the government’s favourite indicator of HE success, namely employability. While it seems unlikely that the university sector will somehow reverse the relentless onslaught of marketisation, perhaps one or more bankruptcies and the subsequent mess may be just the wake-up call we need to change course. Just as long as it’s definitely not us!