This blog has been written by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher – the body representing over forty London-based universities and higher education colleges. She was previously Policy Adviser to the last three Universities Ministers. You can find Diana on Twitter @dianajbeech .
Buried among the flurry of releases by the Department for Education last week was a guidance letter to the Office for Students (OfS) from the Education Secretary, setting out the higher education Teaching Grant (T-Grant) budget for the 2021-22 financial year. The letter is the Department’s attempt to ‘reform’ the T-Grant so that it can ‘ensure value for money and support strategic priorities’.
Despite citing intentions to bolster subjects vital for the economy and labour markets, as well as provide continued support for disadvantaged and under-represented students, it appears that this rule only applies outside London. For, sitting in the middle of the letter is a brutal pledge to ‘remove weightings for London providers from across the T-Grant, including the students attending courses in London supplement, and weightings within the student premiums’.
A table at the end of the letter confirms that London’s 69 higher education institutions can now collectively expect to experience a 13.7 per cent cut in T-Grant funding, equating to a loss of £64 million, with this money set to be redistributed across the other regions in England. So, at least as far as London’s concerned, the Government’s plan is less about levelling up, and more about levelling down.
Originally introduced following the 1974 Pay Board report, which recommended workers be compensated for the extra costs of living in the capital, the London Weighting is now contractually-obliged by trade unions in various sectors and industries and is paid to civil servants, NHS staff and teachers, among others, working in and around the city. In fact, many of the policymakers behind the decision to remove the London Weighting from the capital’s higher education sector will likely be recipients of the allowance themselves, adding further insult to injury.
The assumption that the London Weighting provides additional resource for London’s universities and colleges is fundamentally flawed.
First, London has more higher education institutions than any other part of the UK and, indeed, more than most other major cities in the world. This means London’s share of T-Grant money is already divided among more recipients in the region, leaving less money ‘per head’. To add to this the higher operating costs of running a campus in the capital, higher education institutions in London have always had to do more with less and the London Weighting has only ever gone some way to bridging the shortfall of funds once the additional costs of estates, staffing and student support have been taken into account. In that sense, not only does T-Grant money in London have to go further to account for the higher costs of provision in the capital, but it is also spread more thinly among a larger number of providers when it comes to looking at it through the lens of regional allocations.
Secondly, London’s higher education offering is as diverse as its population. Many of London’s institutions are world-leading, attracting the brightest and best from across the globe, while others are bedrocks in their local boroughs, providing a lifeline for people from some of the poorest wards in the UK. Yet both play an important role in the city’s and the nation’s economy.
To underfund London’s ‘big names’ risks undermining the city’s status as a global higher education powerhouse and, with it, threatens to put off prospective international students and researchers from coming here and spreading their benefits right across the UK.
Similarly, to stem resource going to institutions working at the forefront of widening access and participation efforts in the city risks removing opportunities from some of the UK’s most disadvantaged communities, for no other reason than they happen to reside in the capital.
Moreover, there is nothing to say that the proposed redistribution of funds will guarantee this money is spent on the institutions and communities that need it the most in other areas of England either. With fewer higher education providers in other cities and regions, it is now more likely that the larger and more established universities elsewhere in the country will get an even larger share of resource. This will do nothing to ease disparities between the different parts of the sector and do nothing to close the gap in fortunes between the cities lucky enough to host an eminent university and those without.
At a time when we should be looking to repair and rebuild the country as we come out of the pandemic, it is illogical to enact a policy that will divide the nation even further – pitting north against south and the ‘haves’ against the ‘have nots’.
The key to levelling up is not about cutting supply to the beating heart of the country, but it is about keeping this heart healthy so that the rest of the nation around it can prosper.