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Corona conundrum

Universities and government will need to work together to tackle the challenges caused by Covid-19 

“Like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing the final picture”—that’s how one member of our governing body described to me the challenge of responding to Covid-19.

It certainly feels that way. Around the world, policymakers are grappling with a multidimensional crisis with far-reaching consequences not just for public health but for our economies and wider society. No industry, no business, no individual can escape the disruption—and for many, the impact of the crisis threatens to be profound.

Higher education is no exception. In its latest forecast, the Office for Budget Responsibility highlighted that education faced the largest output loss during the coronavirus crisis. Modelling from Universities UK puts the financial hit this year alone at £790 million, largely due to forsaken accommodation fees, lost conference income and the costs associated with moving teaching and assessment online.

This, however, pales in comparison with the larger risk of a steep decline in international student numbers. In recent years, UK universities have benefited enormously from an influx of talent from around the world and the income that has come with it. But we know that in light of the crisis, prospective students are rapidly reassessing their plans.

A recent QS survey found that the study plans of 57 per cent of respondents had been affected by the virus, with a further 29 per cent weighing up their options. The consequences of such a collapse in numbers would be severe. Across higher education, UUK puts the total exposure at £6.9 billion.

The value of research

Of course, we must recognise that our position is unusual. Whereas some industries face going to the wall tomorrow, for universities the real crunch will arrive in a few months’ time. Nevertheless, ministers must recognise that the crunch is coming and that for some universities the threat is existential.

Ironically, these sobering statistics come at precisely the moment when the value of our world-leading research base couldn’t be any clearer. Across the country, universities are playing a vital role in supporting the national effort to combat the virus.

At Glasgow, we are proud to host one of the UK’s three national testing centres for Covid-19: the Lighthouse Labs. This is just one example of universities’ determination to step up and contribute however we can, whether by supporting the manufacturing of vital equipment, releasing final-year medical and nursing students into the NHS or working collaboratively to advance testing, genome sequencing and therapeutics for Covid-19.

After the crisis, universities’ contribution to the national effort will only accelerate. Once we move beyond the virus, innovation will have a crucial role to play in getting the country back on its feet. As former universities minister Chris Skidmore argued in these pages recently, the government must take the importance of R&D investment to economic growth and recovery seriously. Maintaining the strength of the UK’s research base has never been more important than it is today.

Financial support

So with that in mind, what needs to be done to confront the economic challenge facing higher education?

First, swift action must be taken to ensure sector-wide financial stability. It’s vital that we work constructively with the UK government and devolved nations to agree a way forward that recognises the financial pressures generated by Covid-19 and supports universities not just in weathering the storm but in playing a full part in the economic recovery to come.

It’s to their credit that ministers, under enormous strain, have shown real willingness to engage with higher education on a package of support. I remain hopeful that given the importance of our knowledge infrastructure to both future growth and the ‘levelling-up’ agenda, the government will show the same degree of willingness to back higher education as it has other areas of the economy.

Second, any support measures must have research at their centre. In 2017-18, UK universities absorbed a shortfall in research funding worth £4.2bn. The present crisis means that this is no longer sustainable. Not only will a sizeable reduction in international students prevent research funding from being cross-subsidised in the way it has been previously, but we know that charities and the private sector, some of UK research’s biggest backers, are having to tighten their own belts in response to the pandemic.

The new normal

Higher education is asking for a doubling of QR funding for 2020-21—with associated Barnett consequentials being passed on in full by the devolved administrations—alongside a change in policy so that government funding for research is provided at full economic cost. By making these changes, ministers can go a long way to ensuring the UK retains the capability to bounce back quickly from the economic shock and tackle the problems that defined our policy landscape before the pandemic, such as climate change, technological innovation and rebalancing the economy.

We must plan for the future. The kaleidoscope has been well and truly shaken and universities must recognise that things will not go back to how they once were. While in the teeth of a crisis, it would be prudent to avoid reinventing the wheel, and now isn’t the time to cling to sacred cows. Yes, achieving stability must be the number one priority but we must also cast our minds towards the new normal and what this might look like.

How can we better align R&D ambitions with post-pandemic economic and industrial strategies? What civic role might universities play in helping to stimulate and sustain local recoveries? What is the right level of competition within higher education and what should we do in the future that we perhaps weren’t prioritising before? These are just some of the many questions we must give serious thought to and that will shape higher education for years to come.

While so much remains uncertain, one element has become abundantly clear: that it’s only by working in concert—both within higher education and across government—that we’ll fill in the blanks, address the challenges we face and start to piece this fiendishly complex puzzle together.

Anton Muscatelli is principal of the University of Glasgow and chair of the Russell Group.