An uncertain future for Higher Education

Cap and symbolsAs somebody who has logged many years in higher education and who assiduously follows HE policy wonks, blogs and tweets, I have never known an era when the future for universities is more uncertain. In advance of the general election, I have blogged about the HE Hustings in Westminster which took place in early March.

Below, I try and distil a few more issues which occupy the HE policy landscape. This is inevitably a list which reflects my own, and English, preoccupations, and it is therefore partial – in both senses of the word.

There are several bodies which aim to influence future government policy on HE. The Million Plus think-tank and the University Alliance mission group have laid out their wishlists, while Universities UK, the vice-chancellor’s representative group, has set up a Student Funding Panel due to report after the election.

The level of the student tuition fee will depend on which party is elected. Labour’s stated policy is to lower tuition fees to £6000, while restoring some of the government block grant to universities. Vice-chancellors fear this may still deliver a shortfall, and leave universities vulnerable to further government cutbacks in years to come. Liberal Democrats remain in favour of a graduate tax, but this requires adding to the national debt until those loans begin to be paid back. The Green party promises to scrap tuition fees altogether and, furthermore, write off all current debts. All parties appear to endorse greater access to postgraduate funding, most likely through income-contingent loans.

If the Conservative Party wins the election, they may allow universities to set their own uncapped tuition fees. The Russell Group is thought to support this move as they see it as a way to rival the economic status of US Ivy League universities. Another unknown is whether a Tory government would move to implement a threatened policy of making universities responsible for the repayment of their graduates’ tuition fees, ostensibly in order to make them pay more attention to graduate employability

The Australian government is still trying to get a similar proposal through parliament – so far without success. It is likely that the Tories would return to a discussion of the sale of the student loan book for pre-2012 income-contingent (ICR) loans. In order to make the sale attractive to buyers, however, it might require some tinkering with the terms and conditions on which these loans were offered to students. As funding expert Andrew McGettigan points out, it does not require any new primary legislation to make changes to the repayment threshold and repayment rate for these, or for post-2012 ICR loans. The repayment threshold can remain where it was initially set at £21,000 and not rise in line with wage increases.

Other issues of interest to academics in brief:

The Green party would scrap the Research Excellence Framework and the National Student Survey. Whoever forms the next government, there is sure to be discussion about changes to the format of the REF. Will it be based on metrics: citations and journal rankings?

A teaching REF has been proposed and is being discussed by HEFCE While further audit and regulation might appear unpopular, academics would welcome a spotlight on the controversial casualization of the academic workforce which they see as a threat to teaching and research quality. Some universities are seeking to fill academic posts with short-term contract workers, teaching-only, or zero-hours contracts.

A review of university governance mechanisms is high on many academics’ agendas, but has not yet made it into any party manifesto. There are rumblings on Twitter though, and all it needs is the concerted focus of an influential think-tank. Regulation of the sector, however, is more likely to be discussed. HEFCE may expand its role beyond funding to offer itself as a super-regulatory body to encompass new private providers as well as public universities.

Another candidate might be the Higher Education Academy which, in the face of retrenchment, seems keen to repurpose itself from being a support, resource and accreditation provider for HE practitioners, to becoming their regulator.

While other parts of the public sector have faced severe cuts, universities have been shielded by the fact that funding has been switched from a government grant to being borne on the backs of enrolled students. They have kept coming, and so has the funding. After the election, we cannot take any of this for granted. As I have mentioned in this blog previously only 38% of MPs think that universities spend money efficiently according to a recent report.

It is highly likely that HE funding will be a concern for the next spending review after the election. Reports in the press recently have accused universities of having been ‘featherbedded’ during the years of austerity.

Additionally, it is now clear that the new fee regime has been much more costly that the Conservatives and Lord Browne anticipated. Liam Byrne, Labour’s higher education spokesman, has argued that the current system has led to £280 billion being added to the national debt. So far, this hole has been plugged by a bung from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, and it is only a matter of time before the Treasury comes looking for its money back. Most commentators think that BIS will be targeted with cuts as large as 40% of budget. If universities are perceived to be awash with cash and squandering money, it may be easy to persuade MPs to back those cuts. At the same time, it is unfortunate that another high-profile story has emerged – vice-chancellors’ pay – which has risen at 3-4 times the rate of lecturers’ pay in the last year.

This may make it harder to frame a case for sparing HE such heavy cuts. Indeed, as the dust settles after the election, vice-chancellors might, in their own managerial discourse, find out what it means to be ‘the low hanging fruit’.

Dr Liz MorrishDr Liz Morrish
Principal Lecturer in Linguistics
School of Arts and Humanities
Nottingham Trent University

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