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GLOBAL: The train on platform 2010 is about to leave

Nearly 470 people from 62 countries made the OECD's Institutional Management for Higher Education general conference this year its biggest ever. There was a strong turnout from Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and the US, while Latin America was also well represented, particularly Mexico and Brazil.

The mood was a little gloomy on the first day. Many would say the theme of the conference, 'doing more with less', was to blame. But others claimed it had to do with arriving early, expecting queues to get through security, then finding coffee and croissants (this being France) thin on the ground on the first day.

The mood soon livened up, though, when the Chancellor of California State University Charles Reed delivered his 'train crash' analogy: "To get a good picture of what we are facing, try to imagine a train that's ready to leave the station," he told the audience.

"There's a large group of 500 people who all want to get on the train. The train can seat about 100 people. If passengers are willing to stand, they can fit 200 people on the train. But that still leaves another 300 people waiting at the station. How will we serve them? Should the engineers and porters keep working through the night? Should they ask people to wait several days until more trains can be re-routed? Or should they just turn those people away?"

In case anyone had any doubts about what he was referring to, he went on: "Of course, we want to avoid the 'standing-room-only' solution in which we deliver a lower-quality experience to our students."

Once Reed had unleashed a whole new train of thought, so to speak, others climbed on to the (band) wagon, with higher education facing a 'train crash', students being 'left behind at station platforms', trains failing to arrive, signal failures. In addition, it seemed that trains in various countries were moving at different speeds, the majority of them slowing down.

There was no consensus on whether economies hit by recession were emerging from a dark tunnel, but many believed there were still hard times ahead.

The use of social media, including blogs and twitter, meant there was running commentary and that news from the conference was being quickly disseminated. The presence of two media partners, University World News and Inside Higher Ed, provided the most comprehensive coverage ever of an IMHE conference - its messages reached far and wide.

Members of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the National University of Ireland, Galway, captured the general mood in their 'vox pop' video from the corridors of the conference.

"We are looking at budgetary cuts in the Netherlands and at the same time increasing student numbers, increasing pressure to perform in research," said Esther Stiekema of Utrecht University.

Professor Shinichi Yamamoto, Director of the Research Institute for Higher Education at the University of Hiroshima, said since his university was a national university, it relied heavily on the government for funding. He said he was very concerned about budget cuts: "Recently our government made budget cut proposals, a 10% budget cut is very serious."

Even those less hit by the recession and credit crunch were affected by the downbeat mood.

Ana Garcia de Fanelli of CEDES (Centro de Estudios de Estado y Sociedad) in Argentina said: "We are growing at 8% per year, which is a very high level of growth, so we are experiencing a good moment in terms of funding of higher education institutions. But we also think this is maybe just for a few years and then [there will be] a crisis again."

The belt-tightening message was everywhere.

Mary Dooley, Bursar at the National University of Ireland, said her institution had been on a growth path in terms of student numbers and research activity for the last 10 years. "So the crisis has hit hard for us - we were just getting to a level or a plateau where we wanted to be and wanted to consolidate and now we have had to become involved in retrenchment and downsizing and outsourcing and restructuring, all generated by the financial crisis.

"The crisis came very speedily, very rapidly and it required rapid adjustment, and that means opportunistic adjustment which is not well planned, and that's a big danger for us."

This was echoed by Professor Peter Fidler, Vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland in UK: "My institution is financially stable and academically strong but it is within a sector of British education which is having to face in the order of 20% to 40% cuts in core funding and questioning about the nature of the university, whether we have too many [students], whether we are doing the right kinds of things, what balance of research and teaching is appropriate and so on."

And even the threat of emerging economies moving faster in research and innovation has not been enough to keep up education budgets.

Kirsten Refsing of the University of Copenhagen said: "In Denmark we have had extra resources for higher education in the form of globalisation funding. Up until this year it has actually been very good for us because we have had extra money when we needed.

"But this year the government has decided that globalisation funding should be 1% of gross national product, and since the GNP is falling because of the financial crisis, we actually face some large cuts for the next few years. In our institution we are looking towards quite bad economic conditions."

So concerned were delegates about how they would manage in an age of austerity that there was little about the students who might be left behind on Reed's allegorical platform.

A lone voice was that of Fernando Leon Garcia, of CETYS University in Mexico: "We should not forget about students and making sure we offer a quality education to them regardless of what our strategies are going to be."

As for the students, they were there, too. A strong and articulate delegation from the European Students' Union arrived on a fast train from Brussels to Paris, and they had brought their own croissants with them. They were there to ensure that, whatever else, the train was not going to leave without them.

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