The University and College Union has argued from the outset of this crisis that government support is needed to protect our universities.
We have not done this simply out of self-interest; we must protect a sector that is of such economic importance, will be vital to our recovery and will be extremely difficult to put back together if allowed to collapse.
The scale of the problem
A conservative estimate on the impact of Covid-19 on our universities by London Economics identified a £2.5bn funding black hole, which would result in a £6bn shock for the economy and a loss of around 60,000 jobs – half directly in universities and the rest in the communities they serve.
This is a not a problem of short-term liquidity in which short-term borrowing can bridge the gap. Without clear, early action to fund that gap, provision will shrink, jobs will go and the role of higher education in our recovery will diminish.
As well as not acting out in mere self-interest, our case is not borne out of a desire to defend or preserve the status quo. Marketisation has seen a different university system emerge in which staff are casualised wherever possible and students seen as cash-paying bums on seats. The current crisis has exposed the many faults in a system that glorifies competition and ignores student and staff concerns, leaving universities unable, and unwilling, to present a united front to protect the sector.
A cap that doesn’t fit
The student number cap universities signed up to is a misnomer. It will enable the wealthiest universities to substantially grow their domestic student base at the expense of other more locally-focused institutions. We cannot afford to let this dog-eat-dog approach to dominate what the sector is doing for the rest of the academic year.
Fears over cuts coupled with confusion over what a university education will look like next year have dominated the higher education press for weeks and that is filtering through to potential students. Universities are making different-looking pitches (of what is likely to be a similar offer of blended learning) depending on their position in the market. Meanwhile, the Office for Students is demanding that universities make clear what their offer is for students starting in September, while conceding that nobody knows what will be happening in the autumn.
That confusion is having genuine cut-through with the public. Polling earlier this month revealed that around 17 per cent more students than normal were already considering deferring their university place this year, and there was a 25 per cent chance that students would consider changing which institution they study at. Yet in response, some universities are telling students that they won’t be able to defer, which is doing little to quell what many will now see as a reasonable call for a fee reduction.
What kind of bailout does the sector need?
The fact the government managed to add strings to a package of no new money at the start of May suggests ministers have not yet grasped the full scale of the wider damage university contraction will cause.
To me, four things are needed.
- First, government needs to stand behind the sector so that students can have confidence that their institution will still be standing and their education assured.
- Second, we need to protect our country’s academic capacity so that the thousands of casualised researchers and teachers currently facing being laid off can keep working and contributing to the recovery.
- Third, we need to provide institutional stability by encouraging cooperation not competition.
- Fourth, we need to position universities at the centre of our social and economic recovery from the crisis.
Universities who have some security of income will make better decisions about when it is safe to bring students back – they may listen more to students in fact who want to defer or postpone their studies. Institutions who are not terrified of a sudden loss of income will have no pretext for laying off talented and hardworking staff.
But if funding is protected, market position becomes less important – if only temporarily – and cooperation in the wider interest will begin to take hold. If those things start happening then higher education will be well placed to help drive our recovery both at community and national level.
Then it is time for the long overdue debate about how we fund universities in the future, so they are more secure and better positioned to work together and deal with anything like this in the future.