The future of universities is more political than ever

Following the emergency Budget, recent statements by the Home Office, and Jo Johnson’s maiden speech to Universities UK as the new minister for universities and science, the Conservative government has begun to set out its stall for higher education in the next five years.

While Johnson gives every indication that he wants to assume the urbane mantel of his predecessor David Willetts, it is the Budget statement by Chancellor George Osborne that carries more significance for English universities. He took many by surprise by announcing that tuition fees can rise with inflation for those ‘universities that demonstrate excellence in teaching’. This might have caused cheers amongst vice chancellors who have been lobbying for fees to rise with inflation (although muted by the unexpected strings attached to the increase), but for now, it is a policy that raises more questions than it answers. 

It combines the two contradictory impulses of higher education policy in the last parliament: the wish for a market of differential fees that benefits the ‘elite’ and a desire to incentivise teaching quality against a historic over-emphasis on research. 

However, it is not at all clear how making teaching excellence the criteria for the price of tuition will benefit ‘our better universities’. A quick look at The Guardian league table, which only takes account of teaching measures, shows many of the Russell Group struggling to break the Top 40 with King’s College London (36), Sheffield (42), Queen’s Belfast (45), and Liverpool (59).

Details of the so-called Teaching Excellence Framework that will provide the basis for a tuition fees rise will be set out in a Green Paper in the autumn. Vice chancellors will resist an inspection regime for universities but their avarice will probably get the better of them and they may accept intrusion as the price to be paid for higher fees. 

Ministers have the whip hand on this occasion. However, an alternative scenario is the introduction of an exercise that combines limited peer assessment with metrics, taking into account the National Student Survey, Value Added scores, and DLHE data, alongside other measures such as percentage of staff with teaching qualifications and so on. 

Either way, the question will be how soft the criteria need to be to satisfy the cash-hungry elite, and so how wide the door will be for others to pass through it. The suspicion is that all ‘established providers’ will be easily capable of meeting the bar, raising a question about the true meaning of ‘excellence’. Although only the most naïve policy ingénue will feel betrayed that the possibility of raising tuition fees did not appear two months ago in the Conservative election manifesto. 

How any of this will articulate with HEFCE’s own emerging risk-based approach to quality assurance remains unclear. It is also not certain what an English TEF might mean for universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who currently charge ‘rUK’ students £9,000. The only thing certain about it is that it will be welcomed by ordinary academics with as much enthusiasm as Wolfgang Schäuble at the Syriza Christmas party.

For a while now the Treasury rather than the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills has been running higher education policy in England. And with a new secretary of state Sajid Javid, a former Parliamentary Private Secretary to George Osborne, BIS is no longer a liberal counterweight to the Treasury’s fiscal rectitude. Javid’s real interest is not industrial policy or the health of the knowledge economy, but the political success of the Conservative Party that he would one day like to lead.

BIS must find a £450m saving this year and prepare itself for a 20% cut in its budget as part of the coming Comprehensive Spending Review. Last time round the CSR negotiations between the Treasury and BIS proved protracted, with Vince Cable being the last to hold out for a settlement. Javid will not be such an obstacle to Treasury ambition. The budget announcement of the switch from maintenance grants to loans for students with family incomes below £42,000 is hoped to ‘save’ £2.5bn annually from the BIS budget by 2020. 

The freezing of the income contingent repayment threshold for loans at £21,000 will also offset costs and impairments for the department. 

These were cost-reduction policies that were offered by civil servants to Javid’s predecessor, who felt he could not carry them within his own political constituency. With their implementation, Javid is quickly exhausting his armoury of potential savings – and there are now far fewer places in his budget to turn to find them. 

Widening participation or student opportunity funding will surely go, as the last of the ‘low hanging fruit’, and a way will be found to describe a cut in the science budget as an on-going commitment to research. We can expect another ‘flat-cash’ euphemism, the reintroduction of the STEM ring fence, a redistribution of allocations across the dual funding system or into adjacent Whitehall departments, and other such accountancy trickery. 

We can expect an announcement of the continued sale of the student loan book and the resurrection in some form of the Willetts proposal to encourage universities to buy up the debt of their graduating students. 

Before he was a politician Sajid Javid was an investment banker who some say sailed close to the wind in his handling of collateralised debt obligations in emerging markets just prior to the 2008 global financial crash. The story of what the Tories do next with higher education funding will be one of cash cuts and accelerated financialisation. This all has massive long-term consequences for English higher education. bBt for now, few in sector leadership want to stop the party.

On the face of it, it seems that for this parliament, university finance directors will not be losing any sleep, while students from poor families and struggling graduates, those with the weakest shoulders, will take the biggest hit. De facto, the terms and conditions of borrowers have been changed to fund sector excess, and all this is going unremarked on by those who seem to have swapped a duty of care to their graduates for the sense of entitlement to a bloated loan book. 

All would be rosy in the bursar’s office if it were not for the reaffirmation by Theresa May of her declaration of war on international students with her new plans to ban them and their spouses from working while in the UK and ensuring their speedy exit on graduation. She went further again last week, calling on universities to reduce their ‘dependence’ on international students. This rhetoric is doing enormous damage to UK universities in overseas markets and makes one wonder about the true effectiveness of the lobbying power of the sector. Isn’t it about time someone invited the Home Secretary up to a high table dinner and offered her an honorary degree?

On this point Sajid Javid has made it clear that he is not a friend of universities, and after all the drum-beating over the past weeks on international students, it is clear that Javid’s BIS will not be a counterweight to the Home Office’s illiberal tendencies.

The dynamic of the last parliament – and arguably the one before that – when BIS and its predecessor departments stood up to the Treasury and the Home Office – is over.

And what of the opposition? Conservative plans for union reform – also being driven by Sajid Javid – will make it more difficult for UCU to keep calling for action short of a strike. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have 8 MPs and the Labour Party is split over how best to commit electoral suicide. It remains to be seen whether the SNP will add English universities to fox hunting as a reason to provoke the Conservatives into speeding up the introduction of ‘English votes for English laws’. The success of the marketisation of higher education in this parliament could owe as much to the good fortune of an ineffective opposition as it will to the zeal of Tory ministers.

As ever the question of higher education policy is one in which ideology is justified as necessity. Universities would like to present their predicament as academically neutral, but in truth their future is political through and through.

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