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.