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The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Don’t panic … yet.

  • 23 April 2020

Surprise has been expressed that Universities UK’s (UUK) package of proposals for helping universities in the current crisis has not already been accepted by Ministers in Whitehall and by the devolved administrations.

Today’s Financial Times front-page lead, for example, is headlined, ‘Universities’ plea for £2bn bailout falls on deaf ears in Treasury‘.

Any delay is unwanted by those who worked so hard and so quickly to craft the carefully-balanced proposals as well as by institutions in need of the most urgent support. But we shouldn’t forget how policy generally gets made.

Without wishing to underestimate the urgency of the financial challenges faced by some institutions, it is too early to panic (at least yet) for the following reasons.

  1. The impact of Covid-19 on the higher education sector is likely to be just as (if not more) profound than on other sectors. But for many institutions, the full impact will not be felt until the 2020/21 academic year and we do not yet know important things, such as how many students are likely to enrol then. (Although the new London Economics report produced for the UCU has a stab at guessing this.) As a result, civil servants may feel they have time to ensure the package of support as a whole, when it does come, is right. This is of little succour to those institutions already feeling substantial financial pain (though Ministers point out that some elements of support are already in place even if the whole package is not). But, when the Government needs six weeks to decide whether or not to allow unconditional offers for 2020 undergraduate entry, we should not perhaps be too surprised that it is taking a few weeks for them to decide how much to spend on supporting higher education and how to distribute any aid.
  2. Almost no one lobbying any government on any issue gets exactly what they want. As a general rule of thumb, people asking for public money want few or no strings applied, while governments want to apply as many strings as they can reasonably get away with to help further their wider agenda. So when experienced lobbyists – like UUK – make a bid for public cash, it is made in the knowledge that they may not see either the full quantum of money they have bid for or the precise distribution of resources that they want. There are some fearsomely intelligent officials all over Whitehall who like to stamp their own mark on things rather than merely rubber-stamping the ideas of those outside.
  3. UUK represents the leaders of universities, small and big, old and new, research-intensive and more focused on teaching. It was no mean feat for them to agree such a carefully calibrated package and to do so swiftly. Without wishing to detract from that achievement in any way, it is also a fact that not all higher education institutions are in UUK, that the views of university leaders don’t always chime with the interests of other stakeholders in the sector and that there is a separate lobbying effort going on via other sector bodies – such as individual mission groups and those wanting students to be at the centre of any help, as well as individual vice-chancellors with their own preferred arrangements. Frustrating though it is, it is not unreasonable for officials to want to see this play out a little before making firm decisions that could cost billions of pounds.
  4. Bringing the right people with their hands on the tiller up to speed with all the important issues takes time. For example, there are well-sourced rumours that officials do not feel they fully understand as much as they might about cross-subsidies inside the sector. Yes, TRAC was meant to help with this and, yes, officials in the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy may already get it. But a decision of such magnitude as the question of how to help higher education has to be a cross-government one. Any delay arising from a lack of understanding about institutional finances serves to highlight the importance of transparency. A number of HEPI publications have sought to shine a spotlight on funding flows inside institutions – such as How much is too much?Where do student fees really go?From T to R revisited – but the pushback has sometimes been strong from people inside the sector who have argued this isn’t an appropriate area for public debate. As a result, we are playing catch-up as a sector in explaining the importance of the financial contribution made by non-fee revenues, like student accommodation and hosting conferences, which are now taking a hit.
  5. In Government, timelines generally slip; they almost never get brought forward. (Just think about how long we have been waiting for the response to the Augar review or for the Pearce review of the TEF to be published.) However, it would be wrong to assume this means everything takes ages at every stage. In Whitehall, the pace of decision making can shift from glacially slow to hyper-fast in an instant. In other words, while policymaking is almost never quick, quick, slow, it is often slow, slow, quick. It may look like no decisions are being taken at the very moment when considerable thought is being applied to them behind the scenes. The challenge is ensuring that policymakers have what they need when they get around to making a decision and when the pace changes.

As this process continues to play out, it is crucial we do not forget the underlying strengths of UK universities and the reasons people want to study at them and undertake their research within them.

Some of these underlying strengths might be harder to prove during the current crisis but some, such as the value of medical research, are easier. Indeed, the reputation of institutions, which has taken a battering in recent years, is being partially rebuilt through practical work on tackling Covid-19, in supporting the NHS and even in helping produce a vaccine.

Moreover, once the crisis is over and the dust settles on the new world, the role higher education institutions play as civic institutions that act as the thread binding the fabric of our society together may be even clearer and more important – which, of course, is why the case for public support remains so very strong.

1 comment

  1. Ralph Lucas says:

    I still think that my advice to UUK after the election is the way out of this: Write at once to the PM: “We want to put all our soft power, our network of relationships and alumni, at the service of the UK. Please tell us how we can help.” Do not ask for anything, just offer.

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