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Reboot request

Universities need to rethink their demands for government support to get them through Covid-19  

The deal that universities need to support them through the coronavirus crisis is not the one that they asked for. Nor is it the one that was begrudgingly put on the table by the Westminster government, which is little more than a lend-lease agreement with strings.

Supermarkets recognised early on that the needs of their customers trumped their rivalries, leading them to negotiate the relaxation of competition rules. Universities, in comparison, didn’t start from the best of places. Rather than make common cause with the National Union of Students, the University and College Union and other trade unions, Universities UK chose to go it alone. No surprises, then, that its solo £2 billion ask, carefully released to capture Good Friday’s headlines, was hardly greeted with enthusiasm by the Treasury and many members of parliament.

There is a lesson here. In the midst of a crisis that is rewriting life as it was known just weeks ago, campaign allies and lobby partners are crucial. Who better to get on your side than students (or customers as they are known in current higher education parlance) and staff? Unfortunately, years of seeking to exercise influence by ‘back-channelling’ with ministers, the Treasury and the Home Office meant that UUK forgot this.

The UUK proposals

Let’s be under no illusions: UUK’s original proposals exacerbated the problems of the market and hyper-selectivity in research funding, and did nothing to get students onside. Worse still, the Treasury’s lukewarm response has done little to stave off the funding crisis in individual institutions, which is already leading to redundancies.

UUK’s first requests focused on research, including the old shibboleth of full economic cost. Its proposals would undoubtedly have benefited the small group of universities that receive the lion’s share of taxpayer-funded research monies. In the event, only a very modest amount of quality-related funding (£100 million) has been brought forward.

UUK’s own estimates suggest that there may be up to 15 per cent fewer home and European Union students progressing to university in 2020. It is therefore difficult to understand its proposal that universities in England and Wales should be able to recruit up to 5 per cent more students than the numbers they forecast and submitted to the Office for Students and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales way back in December.

Put another way, if a university’s December student number forecast was 100, they could, under this agreement, theoretically recruit up to 105 students. However, once a 15 per cent downturn is taken into account, the actual likely admissions number falls to 85—a loss of millions of pounds over a three or four-year course.

Nor do the elaborate rules and stern warnings from the Office for Students about unconditional offers and admissions practices add up. All a university higher up the hierarchical food chain has to do is issue many more offers at lower grades in the first place, leaving the majority to keep afloat by reducing courses, student opportunities and staff.

International education

Then there’s international students, where the market may have changed forever and has certainly changed in the short to medium term. In some cases, Chinese students have paid thousands of pounds to return home and may never return.

Nor has the UK government’s handling of the pandemic lent confidence to the idea that the UK is now a safe place in which to live and study. Visas of some international students still in the UK will expire. The Home Office has been typically silent on what happens next and, as outlined in a recent MillionPlus report, could do so much more to stabilise what remains of the international market.

In addition to the research sustainability group, there is a government and higher education taskforce looking at how to update the UK’s international education strategy in response to the crisis. There is a risk that the chickens will come home to roost in a market in which some institutions may have overplayed their hand.

Universities that have used international fees to subsidise their reputations as world leaders in research will undoubtedly claim that without additional funding they will no longer be financially viable. This may well be so, but if such a bailout is forthcoming there should be conditions attached. For example, these institutions could be required to demonstrate that they are financially viable within five years based on their UK activities.

Late in the day, a MillionPlus initiative, badged with UUK, made a plea for more student numbers to be allocated to specific key professions and waved the flag for a £10,000 maintenance grant. MillionPlus also made the case for a higher education capital investment fund and additional budget allocations for training for local government, health and other employers. In the event, the government sugared its response to UUK by agreeing some additional student numbers, but universities and students have still been left carrying the higher education can.

Refunds and restructures

Unhelpfully, the Department for Education has said that students can seek a refund on fees in some circumstances. Universities that have devoted massive resources to the switch to online tuition and support will have little option but to resist. This will put them at odds with students, some of whom have a multitude of problems, including the failure of private landlords to offer rent refunds and the loss of part-time jobs.

There are other forces in the wings. Policy Exchange pundits have argued for a new subgroup of applied universities to replace what was lost when the former polytechnics were allowed to apply for the title of ‘university’—proof once again that almost anyone can be a higher education pundit without knowing anything about what UK universities offer and deliver.

There are other mutterings that after the lockdown, or at least after 2020, there will be an opportunity to restructure higher education, enforce mergers and ensure that some universities lose access to research funding.

This should be the moment when universities make common cause with students, staff, the unemployed and those whose careers and industries have been wrecked or will not survive the coronavirus pandemic.

The deal we need

The right deal for universities has to mean a return to collaboration and an end to the market that has bedevilled higher education for a decade. It has to mean a return to the idea (which students have never abandoned) that studying a subject that you love for its own sake is as good a rationale for higher education as the money that you will earn (or probably not earn to the same extent in a long recession).

It has got to mean more and not less funding for social justice, giving the students who study at the most socially inclusive institutions the same resources as those whose institutions are well endowed through decades of public funding, private endowments and capital investment.

And of course it must mean a return to the direct funding of universities, the restoration of maintenance grants and an end to the tuition fees that have restricted the ambitions of those who would have liked to study at university when they were older, or to return to study, including as postgraduates and part-time.

Universities, with all their talents and ideas, should be on the front line and on the front foot in arguing that the crisis should not be paid for through extra taxes and pay freezes but that the government should borrow to invest, especially in higher education as a right for all.

This is the kind of deal that universities, students, the UK and its governments need now.

Pam Tatlow is a former chief executive of MillionPlus.