Well-led universities should follow the path already offered by Sunderland

The Universities and the need for reform

The institutions that survive the crisis need to make radical changes

Artillery Row

There are many other issues to the fore at present, but newspaper readers and others will have noted that the universities are among those who are pressing for public funds, and, not, incidentally, for a modest amount. This issue provides us with an opportunity to consider both immediate circumstances and context and, more generally, questions of the role and place of higher education and universities over a longer time span.

In the public eye, these problems may have come out of nowhere, as public attention was mostly devoted to the ‘wokeness’ of a minority of staff and students. ‘No platforming’ and other delights of academic idiocy occupied pages of commentary including by yours truly, because they were indeed important as an instance of the ‘culture wars’ that were to the fore, that continue sotto voce during this crisis, and that will revive thereafter becoming more important as we head into new waters.

At the same time, there were of course more significant issues from the perspective of the universities, notably how best to plan against the background of fixed fees. Although that issue was lessened by low inflation (and any increase would really hit the finances), nevertheless there was inflation. To cope with the consequences, the emphasis on recruiting overseas students, whose fees are not thus fixed, increased greatly. That helps explain the background to the present crisis: university finances are already determined to a considerable extent by government, and the overseas fees are largely set to disappear this autumn due to the current virus.

That of course was not all. There was also the longstanding dispute over the USS, the pension scheme, and, more particularly, how the higher contributions were to be distributed. That issue triggered a strike by a heavily-politicised trade union; although there was insufficient public understanding of the degree to which many academics are not members of the union while many union members did not strike. The results were very heavily skewed by subject, with Exeter not atypical in early 2020 in having a heavy strike rate among staff in English, Geography, History and Politics and a far lower rate in Science subjects, the Business School, Economics, and Medicine. This more general contrast is worthy of consideration in terms of the future of higher education. It is as if the less obviously utilitarian subjects were determined to demonstrate a degree of marginality.

The crisis has highlighted the significance of science research as well as the more marginal importance to the state of some other sectors

Institutional provision to the finances of the USS had helped leave many universities in a very difficult situation. Figures released in April 2020 by the Higher Education Statistics Authority indicated that the issue had contributed to ensuring that 119 universities ended the 2018-19 academic year in deficit, although that reflected atypical annual operating expenses. However, the issue provided a difficult background to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic threw a series of problems to the fore, notably that of arranging admissions against a background of the disruption of school education and exams. Against predictions that the sector would lose most or nearly all of the £6 billion international fee income (a major hit also to local economies and to the national one), some universities sought to secure/enhance the domestic entry by making all conditional offers unconditional. There was contrary pressure for a stabilisation mechanism, but the implications and context of such a mechanism were at once unclear. Moreover, some institutions have no more than about a month or two salaries in the bank, and several well-known institutions are in serious financial trouble.

This takes us back to the last election, when, already in pre-virus days, and with many universities in serious difficulties, notably shall we say some of those that are unattractive to students for good reasons, there were calls from Jeremy Corbyn (remember him?; alas the cause lives on) to intervene to provide public funds to their benefit.

So we are back at fundamental questions about how best to organise higher education. In particular, should students and funds be ‘directed’ as an aspect of ‘stabilisation’ or is this a ‘propping up’ of the second-rate and the poorly-managed. Moreover, what do short term issues and apparent solutions mean for the longer term, not least in terms of accentuating the problem but also in changing the context within which it can be addressed?

The crisis has certainly highlighted the significance and value of science research as well as the more marginal importance and value to the state (as opposed to students as individuals developing their mind) of some other sectors, not least those that have been on strike. Putting money into universities in this context appears very indiscriminate and, therefore, highly wasteful. It is better to start from the perspective of the value of restructuring. In the past, this was done by intervention as with subject consolidation, for example in Geology and Classics. The past institutional structure for that method is no longer present, so, instead, there is the need to consider the question at the level of individual institutions. Many have been here before, as with Exeter which closed departments and dismissed staff in other departments in the early 2000s. Before the virus, Sunderland had already announced such a policy.

At the level of institutions as a whole, it is not practical to assume that over 160 will always remain viable and, as a result, it is sensible to plan for the failure of individual universities. Irrespective of the current virus, that should be anticipated whenever there are major falls in demand and/or rises in interest rate. Moreover, the idea that institutions should be permanently protected by directing students to go to particular universities, and to study subjects they do not wish to pursue is not only highly dubious, but also is likely to encourage a high dropout rate.

The prospect of the complete failure of an institution will encourage well-led universities to follow the path already offered by Sunderland, namely cutting less viable courses. Moreover, a consolidation could be seen at the institutional level, and notably with the merger, maybe even takeover, of institutions by others. This is easiest when sites are neighbouring: Hull and Humberside, Newcastle and Northumbria, UCL and SOAS, Kings and LSE; or in the same city. That offers savings in administrative sectors, as well as the consolidation of teaching, and, in some cases, the widening of course options. Furthermore, universities are sitting on a lot of urban real estate, and institutional consolidation suggests that some can be released that would be useful for housing and other development.

This may sound horrific to some in the sector, but more profound changes are likely to come when the pattern of residential education becomes less popular and/or affordable in the future. Moreover, the size of the sector is not some immutable given, unless we wish to see as a branch of some cradle-to-grave social system.

This crisis creates a new context for considering the present mix of challenges and opportunities. Government, and related centralised institutions, are not the best agency for the management both of the sector and of the vortex of competing expectations and demands that compose it. Instead, there is a need, for both managerial and political reasons, for governments to stand back, in order to help secure positive outcomes and to minimise political risk.

It is sensible to plan for the failure of individual universities

Such advice might seem the counsel of despair given the tendency of governments to aggregate power and authority. However, while the experience, expectations, morale and prejudices of staff are important, and need to be considered when planning for any institution, the providers should not be permitted to define the service as if they were some sort of sacred guild who alone understand the nature of education. Other key constituencies today include students, parents, employers, governments and donors, and this is not an exhaustive list. The purchasers of research services are also important for many universities, as, for some, are alumni. Moreover, to complicate the situation, categories overlap greatly. Variety, I would argue, makes a mockery of the one-size-fits-all, centralised control of state-driven models, and, instead, both requires and makes possible a looser system, albeit accepting that the resulting configuration will reflect the differing contours of the political cultures of individual states. Thus, the British system is unlikely ever to approximate to that in the USA. Furthermore, the variety of constituencies of interest is in practice matched by the diversity of universities, even within supposedly centralised systems. Indeed, this diversity, in part, adds to the variety of constituencies involved.

A variety of constituencies contributes to the cacophony of demands posed on, in and from Higher Education. This cacophony provides managerial problems for the governance of the sector, and the argument here is that the variety should be embraced in order to encourage an independence that permits a range of proffered solutions, accentuating contrasts within Higher Education in order to offer clearly different universities to students with varied expectations, and in order to help them define their needs and expectations.

The argument for independence for the universities can be endlessly qualified, but it is one that matches three essential criteria. First, it is appropriate for a society (and world) in which the demand for Higher Education is increasingly varied. Independence will make it easier to respond to this demand and to do so in a satisfactory fashion. Secondly, independence from centralist control and requirements will enable universities to make the most flexible use of their staff and facilities, and to build up, and on, their strengths. Thirdly, independence will greatly ease the political and governmental burden of coping with the competing constituencies represented in and by Higher Education. 

The last may not seem very attractive to those administrators and politicians (party politicians and their educational counterparts) who like to wield control or who profit from membership of quangos; but such control in reality offers scant benefit compared to other possible means of influencing the sector. Rather than government seeking to run the system, it would be best placed investing to ensure particular goals, notably teaching and research that would not otherwise be funded and where investment can be justified and shown to have a return, the latter understood in a number of respects. 

Looking to the future, universities that fail would have to be taken over by their more successful counterparts. The net result, would be the more flexible system that is appropriate for a free society. That flexibility entails universities closing or shrinking; but change has always been a feature of Higher Education, and using large amounts of scarce public finance in a quest to ignore that would be foolish.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover