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Global perspective

Colin Riordan suggests the UK can learn from other countries in tackling tight university finances

As the campaign for the 2024 UK general election gathers pace, there is one area on which the party manifestos are likely to remain silent: how to finance UK higher education sustainably.

While education is a big concern for voters, their focus is on schools and childcare, not universities. Vice-chancellors and friendly parliamentarians may vociferously argue that the sector position is so parlous there is a real risk of universities going bankrupt, but these worries will not dominate on the doorstep. An incoming government will be facing a slew of intractable problems and constraints of the utmost severity on the public purse.

In this, UK universities are far from alone. The pandemic, global conflicts and consequent rampant inflation have upset the balance sheets of governments around the world. Yet in other countries, reform has already been initiated.

Worldwide reforms

The Australian government recently announced changes to the higher education sector that envisages a return to a planned system, closely managed by a new Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC). “Rapid technological, social, political and environmental change means the pressure is always on to produce more knowledge, skills, opportunities and research. Fall behind in this race and Australia will see its productivity, innovation and standard of living decline,” the Australian Universities Accord warns.

The Welsh government is about to launch its own new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research, as part of a policy to integrate the provision of all post-16 education with national research and innovation priorities.

The government of Ghana recognises the need to plan for future skills through its Education Strategic Plan, while India’s National Education Policy 2020 reimagines the whole tertiary education system to allow greater integration, flexibility and opportunity, not neglecting to take account of student support needs.

Such wholesale reform seems unlikely in the UK as a whole, in the short to medium term. But the present system, which in all four nations relies heavily on international student fee revenue to support an otherwise underfunded system, will need to change. Any movement must be financially sustainable, allowing universities to plan over a period of years. It must be practical, allowing reforms to be implemented without excessive administrative overheads. Above all, it must be politically acceptable. No reform can succeed without the fair wind of public opinion.

Developing countries

For now, higher education reform remains in the ‘too difficult’ box in the UK. What about in developing countries? Here, the enthusiasm for universities often (though not exclusively) remains high, but resources are scarce in ways scarcely conceivable. While we may imagine that access to bandwidth, smartphones and networked laptops may be the problem, in fact none of these things is of any use without electricity. A reliable source of power is a fundamental requirement of the infrastructure, as are the necessities of life, such as clean water, reliable food sources and adequate sanitation.

In many developing countries, those basics are in place, but that does not mean that higher education is yet in a position to thrive. For understandable reasons primary education is the priority, along with early years, eradicating child labour, creating a cadre of trained teachers and building schools—all this while meeting the challenges of health and security too.

Changing the business model

What, then, is to be done? Recently, the Association of Commonwealth Universities held an in-person vice-chancellor summit to coincide with a meeting of Commonwealth education ministers, at which this very question was discussed.

The starting point for some was that universities themselves need to play their part. When a business model is no longer fit for purpose, it must be changed. An open and honest (though probably private) conversation between universities and government is required to find the right balance between a commercial model and a taxpayer-funded one.

Similarly, a balance needs to be struck between funding for universities, which is not a doorstep issue, and financial support for students, which is. Employers are huge beneficiaries of the higher education system, both in terms of innovation and the recruitment of graduates. They should play their part, but would an employer levy not merely be a further cost for business in straitened times? Perhaps tax incentives would help, allowing employers to support students through their studies more easily.

When you bring together vice-chancellors and education ministers from across the 56 countries of the Commonwealth, other considerations emerge. Perhaps universities and governments in high-income countries should take a long hard look at the way they are addressing their own difficulties.

A fairer system

The flow of qualified personnel from low- and medium-income countries to those that are better off shows few signs of abating. Bringing students from across the world to successful, long-standing institutions may well be in the interests of the resulting graduates and their families—and nobody would wish to deny them that opportunity. But an extractive approach creates an obligation to consider ways in which a fairer system could be developed.

Equitable research partnerships, supporting staff in developing countries to obtain a PhD while continuing to work in situ, HE-focused international aid through instruments such as social impact bonds and debt swaps—all these and many other measures might help redress the balance.

There is a moral argument for saying that the UK, like other high-income countries, should consider the broader impact of its policies on university funding and student support. But there is self-interest too. Existential reliance on higher education exports creates enormous vulnerability. And looking to the future, countries that are now developing will eventually be developed. The trajectory of many countries in the global south—Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, to mention just three in Africa—clearly heralds much greater prosperity in the coming decades. Collaboration now—a better balance of give and take—will look prescient in the latter part of the 21st century.

Colin Riordan is secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities