The government has effectively announced that it will not bail out universities in financial difficulty.
Instead, the proposal is to bring forward funds from student loans to aid cash-flow and implement a cap on student numbers, so that the more attractive institutions do no recruit significantly more students at the expense of other universities.
If these measures represent the only solution that the government comes up with then many universities will probably be facing a financial cliff edge. Of course this all depends on the thousands of independent decisions to be taken by college leavers in the UK and abroad over whether to study at British universities or not. This in turn is largely dependent on attitudes to distance learning or whatever measures will be in place in October. It seems unlikely that classes of face to face teaching will happen, which suggests that many, and perhaps a disastrously high number of students will defer a university place, or decide that higher education is not for them since the experience is likely to be significantly lacking.
This is, of course, all speculation, but it’s enough for most Vice Chancellors to be seriously concerned about the fortunes of their own university. The media has not been silent, but perhaps in an era when many are predicting the loss of large chunks of the airline and hospitality industries then higher education is pushed back from the headlines, despite the significant role played by universities, of which we’re all familiar.
The Economist last week made the point that the government would want to protect its “levelling up” strategy (i.e. the plan to look as if the government cares about those communities in the North and Midlands who “lent them their vote”.) This may suggest that those institutions in more deprived areas may be protected as the expense of others.
“On April 29th Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, told MPs that his priorities were protecting research, students and the role universities have in local economies—which sounds like a reference to the need to look after poorer places. Those aims will have to be squared with the Treasury’s pressing need to save money and the government’s ambition to squeeze waste out of the sector. It sounds like universities with poor graduate prospects in richer parts of the country should be worried.”
For a university such as ours, at the wrong end of the league tables in a relatively wealthy (but mixed) part of the South East of England, where many think that two universities is a historical anomaly we can do without, things are not looking good. We don’t want to suggest that this is not a great institution with dedicated and committed professionals providing a great student experience, but perception is crucial in this marketised version of education which we’ve campaigned against.
However, trade unionists do not sit back and wait for problems to happen, nor do we campaign for the fortunes of our university at the expense of others. This is a national crisis which requires a national response from the trade union movement, students and young people to fight to save higher education.
We’ve been linking up with other activists to launch a national campaign. We have letters, a petition, and we’re in the process of putting together an on-line meeting. We’re linking up with other campus trade unions and students. It’s more important than ever that we fight to retain the sector in which we all take pride.
More details to follow…