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While universities crumble, the political silence is deafening


Party conferences ought to bring bold commitments—but probably won’t, says Nick Hillman

The academic year has started as they all seem to, in chaos. The latest problem is not Covid, although we are told it is rising, but another acronym we wished we’d never come across: Raac, or reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete.

While the media has focused on the threat from collapse-prone concrete in state schools, the challenges are just as big elsewhere: in hospitals, private housing, office blocks and, yes, in higher education institutions. It is yet another short-term cost to add to the long list of essential and chunky expenditure faced by universities.

Perhaps the biggest bill facing them over the medium-term, however, is for a different issue related to their estates. Realisation is slowly dawning that strides towards net zero taken during the pandemic were temporary, thanks to campuses being depopulated.

Institutions are generally nowhere near on course to deliver on their firm commitments on tackling climate change, and the bigger, older ones typically need to spend hundreds of millions of pounds each on improving their buildings—money that most of them simply do not have.

Thinly spread

Indeed, losses on core activities, such as educating home students and conducting research, have been rising. Meanwhile, demands—for more edtech, more student accommodation, more feedback and assessment, more mental health and careers support, and more science and innovation spending—continue to grow.

No wonder more institutions are posting a deficit. Yet political largesse is in short supply. At the recent Universities UK (UUK) Annual Conference, hosted by the University of Manchester, universities minister Robert Halfon and shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson competed to say as little as possible about improving university funding.

The political star of the show was, rather, science minister George Freeman, fresh from winning the battle for UK involvement in the EU’s Horizon Europe funding programme. Given both sides in the Brexit referendum wanted this, it is staggering that agreement took so long to fix, but fixed it is (so long as we don’t talk about Euratom). Perhaps, to reverse the Old Testament prophecy, seven fat years will now follow seven lean ones.

Some may hope agreement on Horizon will herald a wider rapprochement between the UK and the EU. Will we rejoin the Erasmus exchange programme next?

Don’t hold your breath: as Halfon reminded UUK delegates, the UK lost money on Erasmus. Students from the European mainland were much keener to come here than our young people, with their generally dire knowledge of other languages, were to go and study there.

Party time

The other political star in Manchester was Andy Burnham, the city’s Labour mayor. He was tie-less and note-less, at home in every sense, and exuded the sort of energy that Tony Blair and David Cameron gave off in their early years.

If Keir Starmer can’t get Labour over the line at the next election, then Burnham will surely be breathing down his neck. Judging by this confident performance, the party could do a lot worse.

Minds now turn to the party conferences—this year the Conservatives come first, from 1 October, with Labour a week later. The big two are must-sees, as in policy terms they are the last that matter before the next election, expected to take place in 2024.

Perhaps the approaching ballot is why so many organisations I have spoken to are struggling to book frontbench spokespeople for fringe events: politicians will try to avoid saying anything much of interest, for fear of making a policy commitment not yet signed off.

Generational challenge

At the Higher Education Policy Institute, our pre-election work is well underway. We are about to publish the dream manifestos of three vice-chancellors from across the sector. Together, these will ram home the message that, to be world class across teaching, research and civic engagement, universities need considerable support. Otherwise, institutions will only be able to excel in one or, at best, two of these roles.

The 2023-24 academic year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Robbins Report of 1963 and its adoption by both main political parties, prompting the creation of a wave of universities. It also marks the 30th full academic year since polytechnics became universities, and the 25th anniversary of the reintroduction of tuition fees.

Each of these was a bold political commitment that cost the government considerable political capital. But they all worked out. Perhaps it is a vain hope, but it would be fantastic to see similarly bold commitments from the cabinet and shadow cabinet as they gather in Manchester and Liverpool.

Nick Hillman is the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

A version of this article appeared in Research Fortnight