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Why don’t they like us? A terrible two months for universities in the news

A litany of bad news stories in recent weeks has hammered away at the university sector's collective reputation. David Morris reflects on why this may have occurred and how it can be tackled.
This article is more than 6 years old

David Morris is the Vice Chancellor's policy adviser at the University of Greenwich and former Deputy Editor of Wonkhe. He writes in a personal capacity.

It’s not been the best few months for universities’ collective reputation. That might be understating it. Frankly, it’s been a public relations disaster.

Wave after wave of bad news stories has provoked a string of sceptical commentary and trenchant interventions from influential thinkers in Westminster, Fleet Street, and beyond. So many bad news stories have peppered the press that they bear worth repeating in full.

We’ve seen senior Conservatives’ faith in the current tuition fees system wobble after Labour’s astonishing success in courting the student and young graduate vote during the general election. The interest rate on student loans has come under particular scrutiny and been described as ‘usurious’.

The latest IFS analysis of the student finance system highlighted its complexities and fragilities, and the resultant headlines were dominated by the ugly top level debt figure for the poorest students and the high numbers of graduates who will not repay their loans. It also reawakened the regressive spectre of the 2015 abolition of maintenance grants. It is worth repeating that this – and the freeze in the graduate repayment threshold – was quietly sanctioned by university leaders and lobbyists.

This IFS report was swiftly followed by confirmation that applicant numbers are in decline this year, particularly for nursing. Once again this appears to have been the result of a controversial policy change backed by universities: the abolition of NHS bursaries. Whilst the decline in applications appears to have very little to do with the legacy impact of £9,000 headline fees and the end of grants, the coincidence of news stories surely means that this link has been made by many anxious applicants and parents.  

Let’s not forget of course the TEF results, which – whatever you think of the process – embarrassed some highly esteemed institutions such as LSE and the University of Southampton. The subsequent complaints after the fact from some sector leaders were hardly gratifying, and the appeal process ensures that the issue will rumble on through the summer.

TEF was preceded by the coverage of the annual HEPI-HEA student experience survey that showed students’ continuing perception of a lack of ‘value for money’. And let’s not forget LEO, which proved an opportunity for papers to shame the courses and institutions falling short of the much-vaunted ‘graduate premium’, as well as further iniquities in graduate outcomes.   

And all this before New Labour grandee and ‘architect of tuition fees’ Andrew Adonis began ranting on Twitter about price cartels, vice chancellors’ salaries, grace-and-favour homes, and ‘three month’ academic holidays… Jo Johnson, having made his political bed defending the tuition fees system, used Adonis’s intervention to demonstrate his independence from the sector by talking tough on high-end pay in his 20th July speech.

And to cap it all off, Press Association analysis a fortnight along lead to the latest round of questions about ‘grade inflation’, whilst new research from London Economics calls into question the ‘progressiveness’ of the fees system that the sector leadership – on-the-whole – has been so keen to preserve.

Getting out of a bad news black hole

Well, when you put it all like that David, it doesn’t look great…

The sector could be forgiven for thinking that malicious forces are simply out to get it, or that this is just the beginnings of the silly season mixed with a post-election hangover. Many sector wonks that I have spoken to over the last few weeks are simply hopeful that it will all go away. Much of this bad PR is nothing new: vice chancellors’ pay, grade inflation, and ‘value for money’ complaints are now annual events in the higher education calendar.

But as we come to the end of what might have been the busiest and most eventful academic year in higher education policy for some years, it seems that these recent rows speak to more profound challenges about universities’ place in public and political life. This is significant given the imminent foundation of the sector’s new regulator, the havoc that could be wrought by Brexit, and ominous political instability.

Regardless of the policy ins and outs, there is evidently growing political dissatisfaction with how universities are funded, what and how they teach, how their staff are paid, and how graduates feel about the value of their degrees subsequently.

The challenge for universities appears to be not so much proving that they are a ‘good thing’, as does much Universities UK marketing material. In fact, this might one of the reasons (if one dared rationalise it) for some of the public sphere’s recent resentment. Everyone knows universities are good; that they educate the workforce and develop high-end science and research; that they are now almost essential right of passage into middle-class life. But people tend to not like paying large amounts (whether directly as fees or indirectly as subsidy write-offs) for essential items, and resent those who make them pay it – just look at the public goodwill out there for landlords and estate agents.

But the pressure instead appears to be on universities to demonstrate that they are good value; that they are worth the costs incurred by students, graduates, and the taxpayer and invested in them. Most universities, as I’ve pointed out before, have done very well in the years of austerity – certainly more so than schools or hospitals. Academics will no doubt feel that they have been put under similar pressures to their colleagues in the public sector through austerity and relentless performance management, but from the outside, such pressures appear to have been nothing like as intense as in colleges, the police, job centres, or local authorities.

Most importantly, fees mean that everyone now knows the funding-per-head for undergraduate students, which is unique in public services (who knows how much a school gets per pupil?). This inextricably leads to scepticism about worth, value, and efficiency, of which the debates on contact hours and the government’s response of a ‘teaching intensity’ metric in TEF are a direct (and unfortunate) result.  

None of this is new to the sector, but the debate does seem to be gathering a new intensity. Even before the election there was plenty of evidence to suggest political dissatisfaction with either universities (from Conservatives) or their funding model (from Labour). Now sceptics from the respective opposite sides of the aisle are emerging when it comes to universities’ conduct (as with Adonis) or their funding (as with Damian Green).

Alison Wolf recently suggested that such PR challenges might be the inevitable consequence of British universities’ incomplete transition from elite to mass participation. As we just about reach the hallowed (or hated) 50% participation target, the sector is not universal enough to enjoy mass affection or loyalty (like state schools or the NHS), nor small or sufficiently autonomous to be left alone (like independent schools). UK universities point to their continued world class status, but the benefits of this are simply too abstract for many politicians and the general public.

Maintaining anything resembling the current fees, funding, and uncapped numbers model will require some deep thought within Woburn House about alleviating growing public scepticism, or ‘bad news days’ – and political pressure for even more dramatic regulatory reform – will continue to become ever more common.

8 responses to “Why don’t they like us? A terrible two months for universities in the news

  1. Just wondering whether the correct link has been attached here: “the freeze in the graduate repayment threshold – was quietly sanctioned by university leaders and lobbyists”. It is the UUK report, not IFS, and I can’t see a recommendation on the repayment threshold.

  2. Page seven of the UUK funding panel: “if concern about the long-run costs
    to government of the loan subsidy increases in the short term, then some modi cations to the system could be made. Of the options analysed, the preferred of the panel is the threshold freeze model where the lower and upper income thresholds for repayment are frozen in nominal terms for a period, meaning their real value declines with inflation. The scenario modelled in this report sees both thresholds frozen for a period of seven years (from 2016 to 2023)3 by which point the lower threshold meets the real value of the threshold under the previous (pre-2012) system.”

  3. Thanks David – great thought-provoking reflections, as ever. Working out whether something is valuable depends on knowing how/whether that something affects your life. Knowing about it depends on the information reaching you through the information media you use, whether press, tv, billboards, or social media and whether you gain that information actively or passively. Unfortunately universities do not seem to get good news out to people it affects, or could affect. Almost everything universities do, or potentially do, has an effect on “ordinary” lives. Alzheimer’s research, cancer and diabetes research, graphene, communications technology, civil engineering techniques, translating the ambition to have nearly all electric vehicles by the middle of the century and hundreds of other things. The Russell group report (the accompanying video, which was quite good, has been taken down) preaches good news to the converted; University Alliance has some fabulous material telling good stories but I wonder how many Sun readers have seen it?
    Universities UK tweet really important facts and figures
    University websites contain information about amazing work and discoveries, but why would a tabloid newspaper reader visit them? Annual reports take weeks to write and are full of good information, but how many people read them? Is it time they passed “the dentist’s waiting room test” and were available in dentists’ waiting rooms? Take a look at this one, which I think would

    Does anyone else think we need to work harder to reach our non-traditional audience and those who do not think universities affect them (possibly because they didn’t go to one?) If so, where do we start?

  4. I thought with fees that the treasury no longer considered universities to be part of the ‘public sector’? Look at footnote 4 in this Lanchester article n the LRB.

    ‘Note for wonks: I’ve added 196,000 to this number to reflect the fact that 196,000 higher education jobs were moved from the public to the private sector in this quarter’s data.’

    Perhaps he’s wrong about this.

  5. An interesting article. And I agree that in financial terms universities have done much better than many places elsewhere in the public sector, take prisons as an example – a challenging operating environment with significant staffing and financial cuts in recent years. Closer to home so to speak, in comparison with Further Education, Higher Education seems to do better financially. I do not know how VC pay compares in say China, India or the rest of Europe although I understand that pay is broadly higher in the US and Australia. But curiously such comparisons seem to routinely include pension and other benefits too. Some of this seems to be political fashion, for example, with regular comparisons with the headline salary of the Prime Minister which makes little sense to me.

  6. Great thought provoking piece David. For me, the underlying issue behind the descent into almost daily punishment beatings from all sides is the surprise election result. Labour’s most popular and recognisable policy was to abolish fees, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the subsequent scramble to tap into that particular ‘vote winner’ – with value for money being the obvious target. Perhaps understandably, the sector never really took this threat seriously before the election. But even now, and despite UUK’s laudable efforts, it feels like the sector remains blindsided and unsure how to react. Uniting around a willingness to reform and embracing new measures to improve quality, transparency and value for money (such as the TEF) would help. HE still have plenty of friends in Whitehall ready to defend the sector, but they will have an increasingly difficult job if universities make it easy for the media to portray them as self-serving and stuck in the past.

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