I was going to write that you can’t have an effective failure regime in higher education unless you have a buyers market for academics – not just students and their tuition fees. There has to be hope for the dons as well as the students. Or it would just be value destruction and marginal costing by the buyer.

And then I remembered that there is one. Not whole departments, although it sometimes looks like that, but academics are lured away to another university for the valuable REF points their publishing and reputation brings. One report said that top REF scorers could earn 7 times a much as a newly appointed prof working in an unproven impact area, on new ideas (which is still part of a university’s mission). And quite often the transfer market involves other colleagues following. So not just a phenomenon of Premier League football.

But it did set off a train of thought which connected with the WonkHE article by the excellent Jim Dickinson, where he dug his way through the 203 Student Dispersal Plans. Or rather 138 – Jim noted that 65 reports were missing or couldn’t be readily found. I think it would be fair to say that he found them a bit thin and complacent leaving many questions, including postgraduate student supervision unanswered.

But it does highlight the point that departments and teams of academics are the building blocks of universities. If you are going to transfer the students they will need teaching and continuity. And a small department having difficulty being financially sustainable in one institution might make an excellent addition to another adding scale and skill. The value of the team or the department may be greater than the sum of its parts.

This is not a question that only arises if a university faces insolvency. It arises somewhere every term. Departmental and course closures are happening all the time, but how much thought is giving to “selling” them or transferring them as a team, a “going concern” that might fit in well else where?

It will be happening in an ad hoc way when creative administrators and academics see the writing on the wall in one campus, or one institution where they just don’t fit into the plan and rather than fragment and lose a knowledge unit that took a long time to build, find a way to transfer it. Now all you have to find is the “price” or value of doing that across all four divisions to create a functioning transfer market that works all the way up and down and not just in the Premiere League.

Then you have a “failure regime” that has some hope in it. Hope not fear, that’s what you need for effective marketization and the good outcomes the OFS and others aspire to create.

If you are interested in how restructuring and failure mechanism might evolve in HE join me and others on the afternoon of 6th December in an exploration of the issues raised.

Find out more here and RSVP to Editorial@policyreview.co.uk

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