Four big beasts in a triangle of sadness

King's College London is attempting to start a better national conversation on university funding. David Kernohan listened in.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

On the face of it, the “national conversation” about university funding is pretty much played out.

At a webinar convened by King’s College London, ostensibly provoked by the the ideas in Shitij Kapur’s Triangle of Sadness paper, even David Willetts – a man who has built a post-parliamentary career in discussing (and defending) his post-2021 settlement in England – invoked Groundhog Day.

The triangle itself – the title of the paper being a reference to the 2022 Ruben Östlund film – is very speedily glossed as the joint recognition that:

  • UK universities are underfunded where it comes to teaching home undergraduates
  • UK students are undersupported in terms of maintenance, and overburdened by loan repayments after graduation
  • The UK does not offer universities the full cost of research, and there is limited appetite from the private sector to fund research

I should note that though the framing is UK wide, the conversation very much focused on England.

Shitij is clearly evolving his own interpretation of potential solutions as his research and investigation continues – a refreshing change from the dogmatism that has so often stifled this debate. In his paper he calls for an increase in undergraduate fees, to at least the inflation-adjusted equivalent to £9,000 in 2012 – in his introduction at the webinar he moved towards an increase in direct funding from government, noting that England has the lowest taxpayer contribution to the cost of higher education in the OECD.

There was general agreement (even from Willetts) that the Browne fees should have, and could have, increased by inflation each year as was originally planned (in fact, this happened just once – leaving us with £9,250 fees). Likewise, there did not appear to be any disagreement from Willets, Vivienne Stern, and James Purnell (the other panellists in an event chaired by Bobby Duffy) on the principle of paying the full economic costs of research, and there was a general support for the idea of students getting a better deal.

The disagreements came in terminology – once again the debts that are not debts, and the idea of an information led (not, for any speaker, a price led) market as a way of providing a public service with autonomous providers. Likewise, comparisons are fraught issues – we have (according to Willetts) a “mid-atlantic” system combining elements of the North American and European models.

So far, as expected, you may well think. The most interesting action came around the idea of massification – for Stern, the swimming pool in the Gremlins of higher education issues (no, me neither, but fair play to her for taking a risk with a metaphor). Nobody was prepared to put the idea of a mass system to one side – we need one to keep pace with our global competitors. Preserving this, alongside the reification of student choice as a primary planning tool, and the reality it is an expansion in international (and as wasn’t discussed, postgraduate) fees that pays for this core national skills infrastructure.

Whether or not we could, or should, agree the proportion or number of home or international students entering university (Purnell, interestingly was in favour of this) it is a change to the funding model that would unlock this – though we did get the expected hand-wave at the idea of efficiencies.

This is the start of a potentially interesting reboot by KCL of what can feel like a worn-out conversation – the series will continue with Kapur in conversation with Charles Clarke in March, and a series of international comparison focused roundtables convened by Alison Wolf. Whether or not this is successful in pushing university funding into the election campaign (and I would bet alongside David Willetts that Bridget Phillipson’s first speech will be on early years) it represents proof that, with the right participants willing to let go of accepted wisdom, the conversation on university funding is worth having.

2 responses to “Four big beasts in a triangle of sadness

  1. Insofar as reducing things down to a triangle is useful, the three corners are as follows:

    Reduced spending on all forms of education as a share of national income.
    Increased spending on the NHS and social care as a share of national income.
    Low productivity leading to slower growth of national income.

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