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Truss offers universities less bread and more circuses

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Sector must make its case amid continuing culture wars and looming recession, says Nick Hillman

When Margaret Thatcher, to whom the new prime minister Liz Truss is often compared, entered 10 Downing Street, she famously quoted St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.” 

Today, even Thatcher’s acolytes would struggle to claim she succeeded in that; her record in office gave Tony Blair the space to claim New Labour would marry economic competence with a social conscience.

Every Conservative leader since at least Iain Duncan Smith has tried to repeat Blair’s trick, with varying degrees of success. But Liz Truss’s approach looks set to be different. She thinks there has been too much focus on redistribution and not enough on economic growth. 

Her return to red-meat Tory issues works well with Conservative members in the shires. Yet it may prove less appealing than Boris Johnson’s schtick in those seats in the north of England we’ve heard a huge amount about over the past three years, but little about over the past three months.

Cultural crossfire

The least edifying part of the leadership election was the culture war nonsense, in which universities are invariably caught up. This does little more than drive deeper splits into our already divided society, but it is not going away. 

Clearly, universities must defend themselves when their freedoms are threatened, but press freedom is as important as academic freedom. So we must avoid giving easy stories to those looking to beat up universities and think more about how, as a sector, we come across to the outside world.

Because so little else was said about universities and research during the Tory leadership contest, the new government’s agenda in these areas is not obvious. However, it would be unwise to expect either the attacks on ‘low-quality courses’ or the interest in new minimum entry requirements to dissipate. 

I recall a meeting with Truss when I was a government special adviser on higher education and she was a new MP, during which she argued for tougher university entry requirements. This summer Truss called for guaranteed Oxbridge interviews for high-performing pupils, so we should also get ready for a row about institutional autonomy on admissions.

On research, despite the successful results of the Research Excellence Framework, the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to raise R&D spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP in the next few years is unlikely to be fulfilled—unless the expected recession is so brutal that 2.4 per cent ends up being significantly less money than was expected. 

The Johnson government had already begun to water down its commitments on the journey to 2.4 per cent. Westminster also knows that New Labour’s failure to get anything near its own 2.5 per cent target had negligible electoral impact. Meanwhile, the augurs on sorting out the Horizon Europe mess do not look good.

Falling funding

Tuition fees have more electoral salience than research funding. That’s why MPs are not clamouring to vote for a higher tuition fee cap for England, especially this side of a general election. Unfortunately for universities, the Treasury seems equally reluctant to boost the old teaching grant, now called the strategic priorities grant. It seems similarly unwilling to tackle the cost of living crisis for students.

So funding for each home student is likely to go on falling fast in real terms, while research will continue to be underfunded. That is bad, but not unprecedented: the last lengthy period of Tory rule saw a doubling in the number of students but no extra money. In response, institutions—especially the former polytechnics—adopted a ‘pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ approach. Those of us who went to university in the early to mid 1990s remember the overfull lecture halls, a deteriorating staff:student ratio and crumbling buildings.

Recruiting more international students may help, but this comes with its own risks, given the rhetoric over the summer about international students displacing home students and the UK’s (over)reliance on Chinese students. Yet there is one urgent thing universities can and should do, including at the impending party conferences: remind policymakers and the general public that they are indispensable to all the grand challenges facing the UK and the world.

You can’t tackle climate change, improve productivity via innovation or fully understand big geopolitical shifts any more than you could speedily develop a Covid vaccine without universities having the heft and freedom to put their shoulders to the wheel. So in the end, the success of the UK university sector and any UK government are inextricably linked.

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight