The original Universities UK bailout proposal was understandably light on detail.
Thrown together in a matter of days as the potential impact of Covid-19 on the sector between clear – the 10 April publication included a lot of very general statements. Clearly as discussions continued the idea was to flesh them out.
Unfortunately, although discussions are ongoing, the idea of a sector specific bailout appears not to have landed as well in the Treasury as was hoped. Instead of a specific offer based on the needs identified by Universities UK, universities were encouraged to make use of the other remedies available to businesses in the rest of the economy. We don’t know yet how many providers have applied for government funding, and how many have furloughed staff, but financial issues for the sector will largely become apparent in the autumn – when the damage to student recruitment becomes apparent – rather than now when the emergency provisions are available.
The key and the secret
This latest update to the bailout comes the day of the Commons Education Committee – the first chance since the seriousness of Covid-19 became apparent for MPs to hold Gavin Williamson to account. It focuses on sector support for current and future key workers in the public sector. The scope of this is provision covering medicine, nursing, other healthcare related subjects, social work, and teaching – and the approach is three pronged:
- For students, a new £10k maintenance grant (possibly means tested), and fee loan forgiveness (at a potential cost of around £250m) for those who stay in their profession for at least five years.
- For providers, an uplift to OfS recurrent funding streams linked to these subjects (in the same way as the current “high cost subjects” allocation works) and a new Public Services in Higher Education capital fund (estimated at £500m) to cover infrastructure investment.
- And for current and reserve key workers, a new professional development programme to enhance skills, paid for through an increase to staffing budgets
You may have forgotten within the Covid-19 pandemic emergency measures that we were preparing ourselves for a major consultation on the OfS’s funding method this spring – this was expected to take a more planned approach to OfS spending on student subsidies, with an eye on both preserving useful and rare provision and amping up socially useful subject provision. In a way, this new proposal could be seen as a repurposed submission to this expected review, as it asks the government specifically to invest in areas of provision deemed important.
By focusing on the risks to the supply of new professional entrants in key areas, this proposal also addresses shortages based on other policy decisions – in particular the end of nursing bursaries (even though the maintenance grant has returned, nurses still pay fees on their courses since 2016), and the impact of an already expected decline in EU worker migration due to brexit. There may also be some rueful consideration of the decline in teacher training at universities, itself a policy decision made by the current Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, advised by the current Prime Minister’s Advisor.
Cap in hand
The proposal also addresses an impact of the wider UUK bailout plan, seeking the removal of “key worker” subjects from the proposed cap on recruitment in 2020. This brings more nurses (for example) into the courses, and the expectation is the additional funds for providers and students would help keep them there, with the proposed fee loan forgiveness helping them stay in post for longer.
You’ll recall during the election the infamous 50,000 extra nurses promise inadvertently highlighted the problems nursing has with attrition and burn out. Similar issues exist in other key worker areas, particularly in social work and teaching. The offer of professional development may go some way to help this, as will the fee forgiveness lock in – but sadly workload, stress, and low pay are outside of what universities can address.
I’d also love to have seen it made clearer that these important measures would only make sense in an environment where the majority of HE providers are financially viable in the short-to-medium turn. We do not currently live in such an environment, and although the main bailout measures would go some way to addressing these circumstances they would not go all the way.
The popular idea of the “key workers” we spend each Thursday evening applauding is focused on healthcare and teaching – but there are other essential skills that we need to invest in post-Covid (logistics, for me, is a glaringly obvious example – retail management is another, and agriculture a third) and it would have been nice to see some wider thinking on future needs. There is, after all, a queue of sectors that have a claim on emergency government funds – right now universities are not, with the best will in the world, at the head of that queue but they can support those who are or should be.
But overall this is a welcome and thoughtful intervention – and serves to highlight the contribution universities can make and have been making to the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.