Artillery Row

A new student experience

Covid-19 has left universities in crisis – and provided an opportunity to reform a bloated system

As with care homes, so with universities, the pandemic and related economic crisis of 2020 has thrown into attention the serious deficiencies of a significant part of national life. With roughly half those who leave school going on to higher education, the state of universities is scarcely a marginal subject. So even more if we consider their importance to the economy, national and local, notably the research base, as well as the cost – to state, families and individuals – of student support, and the accumulated investment and debt represented by university infrastructure as well as by non-university student residences.

The situation was already not-fit-for-purpose prior to the crisis. The facets of the crisis were varied and listing them does not imply a clear prioritisation. Many students were concerned about the quality, quantity and value of their teaching, while the mental health of many students caused increasingly anxiety; the excellent, subject-defining research of the best was not matched across the sector; the anarchic union was staging destructive strikes in pursuit of a dubious solution to the pension crisis, the Treasury faced very low rates of repayment of a vast accumulated debt for student fees; there was a heavy reliance on foreign students to produce fee income that lacked the state controls on domestic undergraduate fees; virtue signalling, for example decolonising the syllabus, weakened the intellectual and educational value of much teaching; and the system in place appeared to match no particular logic.

The 2020 crisis exposes a huge disparity in the quality of undergraduate experiences at different institutions, and has brought financial crisis to the fore for many institutions, with the collapse in recruitment from abroad, especially China, matched by issues over deferment by home students, both accentuating problems already caused by a decline in the number of 18 year olds, but with the added twist that, whereas the problems up to 2017 had focused on weaker institutions, for example Aberystwyth and Hull, those of 2020 hit some of the stronger and therefore most internationally-attractive institutions, such as University College London and the London School of Economics.

As so often, the immediate response was that of demanding state aid, relying on the blackmail provided by the political cost, in terms of angry students, parents and local MPs, of universities going bust.

If this gamble, and it is a gamble, pays off, albeit with some politically necessary salves to keep the Treasury happy, such as changing some universities to further education colleges, it will be an opportunity wasted to reform the bloated system; and why, with over 160 universities, should it be assumed that the government must act to prevent any being obliged to merge with another institution is unclear. Possibly the very scale of the current fiscal crisis will mean that more radical alternatives will be offered, as is surely necessary, rather than allowing Covid-19 to be used as a smoke-screen to mask the many deep-seated problems and to ensure that the root and branch reform which is needed will not happen.

why, with over 160 universities, should it be assumed that the government must act to prevent any being obliged to merge?

The cost element is to the fore, not least as all expenditure is opportunity lost, for students, society and state, to meet other goals and address other needs. This cost element can be addressed by a number of measures, including developing two-year degrees and encouraging more students to remain at home. These are separate points. The first is readily possible by switching current provision – generally teaching for less than half of the year (22-24 weeks most commonly) over three years, to four terms, each of ten weeks over two years. This would offer more to the student as well as a greater use of teaching facilities. There will be some subjects, notably in the sciences and modern languages, that require three years teaching at this rate, and students taking them can be encouraged by grants and by obtaining Masters degrees as a result of their three years; but there is no need for such an automatic provision for other subjects.

Leaving home to study can be of great value for the development of personality, but issues of mental health and cost suggest that it should definitely not be seen as an automatic requirement.

More teaching will mean a change in staff working, with research time and funds focused far more carefully, and without any expectation that all staff carry out research. This is particularly so of the humanities and social sciences, but not only there; and this differentiation among staff provides opportunities to encourage more of a career commitment to teaching. It is attractive to argue that good teaching is only provided by those at the cutting-edge of research, but the latter is self-evidently not true of many in the humanities and social sciences; and it would be good to call out the charade. Instead of obliging academics to pursue grants to carry out research of dubious value, which is the current way to gain promotion, it would be better to focus on committed teaching; with the latter not measured on some politically-correct scale.

Is the system capable of such change? I doubt it. Just consider the last point. Look at the extent of the hold of faddish values, at the emphasis on decolonisation, at the facile nature of inclusion, at the sheer mediocrity or, let us be charitable, lack of original insights, of so much of this intellectual agenda; and the horrible thought emerges that it may be too late in many institutions to do much. That conclusion will raise anew the question of the balance between universities and vocational education, and whether a major transfer of aspiration and resources toward the latter should not be encouraged.

Daniel Godhart has already produced valuable suggestions in this direction, and the current crises in the university sector suggests that radical action would be best. The universities will buy time, suggest a modest restructuring, and (justifiably) emphasise the great value of their scientific and medical research as well as their value to local economies. These latter points are well-founded, but they should not serve to excuse a bloated system whose jewels should qualify, but not distract us from the consequences of a more general lack of fitness for purpose.

Jeremy Black is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.

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