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The biggest problem facing UK universities? The lack of ‘friends beyond their borders’

  • 2 February 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

Spending reviews and déjà vu

After the recent rash of documents from the Department for Education, we must raise our eyes to the next spending review, when the Government decides how much is to be spent on different priorities over the next few years.

I have a serious case of déjà vu. In my seven plus years at HEPI, I seem to have been constantly looking towards an approaching spending review. On many occasions, just as the finishing line has hoved into view, it has been pushed back to the distant horizon.

There was meant to be a multi-year spending review in late 2019, but Brexit shenanigans put paid to that. Then it was meant to occur in the summer of 2020 but was delayed until the autumn, thanks to COVID. Then, it was further delayed until 2021 (with a stop-gap one-year interim spending review for 2021/22 to fill the gaping hole).

Even if a multi-year spending review were to be further delayed, two things are certain. First, at some point it will happen. Secondly, when it does come, it will be challenging because of the likely state of post-pandemic Britain.

Unless the Chancellor happens to have a particular love for one area of spending, and so is naturally inclined to help (as George Osborne was towards scientific research), the key to success in a spending review is two-fold: having good evidence and having lots of allies.

Let’s consider these in turn when it comes to higher education.

The evidence base: is it good, bad or ugly?

There is no shortage of positive evidence to show the benefits of the three key roles that higher education institutions play: education, research and civic engagement.

I am not saying the data is perfect. Any education policy wonk worth their salt can tell you about numerous general shortcomings, frustrating timelags and important omissions in the data on our sector. (The indefatigable David Kernohan can probably tell you the specific flaws in each specific dataset.) Plus, the hard data we have often needs to be supplemented with better qualitative information – we sometimes lack the type of evidence that sits between numbers and anecdotes.

But a spending review is a competition with other sectors and the extant evidence (including from the annual HEPI / Advance survey) is good enough to play in the top levels of the game. We have better evidence, whatever its shortcomings, to show the value of higher education than exists for many other areas of public spending.

One popular saying in the civil service is ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’ and the data in our sector is generally good enough for spending review purposes.

Billy No Mates

What we lack is a sufficient number of allies. Just look, for example, at the greater scrutiny universities receive in the media than in the past (which, incidentally, is the theme of a HEPI paper that will be out later this month). Or look at recent parliamentary speeches, such as David Davis’s speech introducing his Freedom of Speech (Universities) Bill. Or consider the closer focus and tougher rhetoric used in recent years by regulators, such as the Advertising Standards Authority or the Competition and Markets Authority, than in the past. 

A shortage of friends is not a new problem for British universities.

A shortage of friends is not a new problem for British universities. Fifteen years ago, in a piece about the shift from elite to mass to universal higher education, the pre-eminent expert on post-war higher education in the US and the UK, Martin Trow, wrote the following:

The first great surprise, from which all others flowed, was that the universities had no friends beyond their borders. Friends are not necessarily stake-holders, nor are stake-holders always friends. Stake-holders generally ask ‘what can you do for me?’ Friends also ask ‘what can we do for you?’ British higher education over the past decades needed friends, and found stake-holders. That explained to me why successive governments of both parties felt free to cut the unit of resource by more than half in two decades, without suffering any political penalties.

It is in building allies where we need to do more work, in my view.

In some ways, this should be easy. The proportion of people who understand the importance of university research surely increases each time the media reminds us of the role universities play in researching vaccines, training doctors and nurses and helping to run hospitals.

At the end of the current COVID crisis, our universities are likely to be even more important anchor institutions than before, given the way the pandemic is affecting companies, communities and charities.

Allies in Whitehall

But we don’t just need allies in society in general. We need allies in one specific place: Whitehall.

Key funding decisions are not made in just one Department.

Key funding decisions are not made in just one Department. So the Department for Education does not decide alone how much will be spent on education. It is also wrong to think that key funding decisions are typically made in bilateral negotiations with the Treasury. The Treasury doesn’t just talk to each Department individually and then emit the smoke signals.

Funding decisions are, rather, part of a lattice. Number 10 and the Treasury and other key central figures decide how much each Department gets after discussion with every Department.

  • If the Department for Education, say, puts up a particularly strong case but most of Whitehall is more sympathetic to Defence or Health or state pensions or reducing government debt or tax cuts, that will shape the thinking at the top.
  • Or if the numbers don’t quite add up in the final stages of a spending review, then any shortfall will come from the Department(s) out of favour or any spare cash will go to those in favour.
  • Moreover, while it might be rarely spoken about in public, Departments have been known to whisper in the Treasury’s ear that some wodge of funding or another would actually sit much more comfortably inside their budget than wherever it currently resides. If your own budgets are at risk, you might as well eye up someone else’s.

Is the Treasury a sticky wicket?

Even though spending review decisions are more complicated and nuanced than is widely understood, you can feel like you are on a sticky wicket facing a bowler who has tampered with the ball if you don’t have sufficient friends in the Treasury.

This is a risk for higher education currently. At least one Treasury Minister, the cerebral Jesse Norman, has shown considerable support for higher education. Not only did he used to lecture at Birkbeck but he is a long-time advocate of the brand new and innovative provision at the New Model Institute of Technology and Engineering (NMITE) in his own constituency.

But others have been less supportive.

  • One, Lord Agnew, has questioned university admissions, asking: ‘Why are we letting kids go to university with three Es at A-level? Why? It’s a lunacy.’ This helps explain why universities responded to the Government’s Interim Conclusion to the Augar review by highlighting the risk of minimum entry standards.
  • A second, John Glen, has in the past used the pages of his local newspaper to express frustration that the current system of funding ‘has failed to produce the anticipated competitive market within the higher education sector, with few institutions stepping up to offer a range of price points and different degree structures to give students choices around how much they spend on studying and over how long.’
  • A third Treasury Minister, Kemi Badenoch, has spoken out against academia, recently telling the House of Commons, ‘I want to speak about a dangerous trend in race relations that has come far too close to home in my life, which is the promotion of critical race theory, an ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood and their whiteness as oppression. I want to be absolutely clear that the Government stand unequivocally against critical race theory.’

As a white middle-aged middle-class man, I am not well placed to say if Kemi Badenoch is right or wrong (though HEPI’s recent output covers a range of equality, diversity and inclusion issues). But there is undeniably a yawning gap between what she has argued and the sector’s self-perception: a recent Universities UK report states: ‘We must acknowledge the institutional racism and systemic issues that pervade the entire higher education sector’.

One old problem is an insufficient understanding of the breadth of our higher education sector in Whitehall. The fact that three-quarters of the six Treasury Ministers, plus the Permanent Secretary (and the Second Permanent Secretary), went to Oxbridge could conceivably be a barrier against a deep understanding of the needs of the whole sector.

A shortage of friends in the Treasury and a shortage of friends in other Government Departments is a potentially dangerous place to be. Whitehall contacts who share the core priorities of the higher education sector tell me they feel increasingly hamstrung because others in the heart of government have been gradually falling a little more out of sympathy with our sector as the months have gone by.

Some might think that is a price worth paying for maintaining a pure approach, especially as the preferred candidate for the new Chair of the Office for Students may be more political than his predecessor.

A perfect mess?

But policymaking is inherently messy. So others might worry that an ever falling number of allies in the corridors of power in the run up to the first major spending review for many years could end up burdening higher education with specific problematic policies – like lower fees for some or all subjects and / or minimum entry standards.

There are, as always in politics, three options.

  1. One is to ignore the Government and to keep what might be regarded as the immutable principles of academia, such as institutional autonomy, academic freedom and internationalism, burning brightly.
  2. A second is to meet policymakers halfway via reasonable compromise in some places and a refusal to compromise in others.
  3. The third is to become very responsive indeed to the perceived demands of society and policymakers.

The first approach has appeal but, in truth, autonomy has never meant completely ignoring democratically elected governments, especially since the era of significant public support for higher education (as still occurs, even if the main mechanism is student loans rather than grants). As so often, the Robbins report put it best:

refusal to co-operate in national policies or to meet national emergencies is an unsympathetic attitude, and it would be easy to think of reasons why it should be overruled.

The third slavish approach is out of the question, given that part of the role of academia is, as the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) rightly makes clear, ‘to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions’.

So the middle option must be worthy of further consideration in the run up to the spending review. 

In practice that means searching out and emphasising areas where universities’ interests and the Government’s interests closely align – perhaps in levelling up or civic engagement or greater provision of Level 4 and Level 5 courses or closer collaboration with FE colleges or rejuvenating town centres or research breakthroughs. It also means looking for smart ways to show policymakers there is an appetite to hold down costs where it does not mean reducing the quality of education and research – perhaps most notably, that should mean a continuing commitment to sort out the enormous USS pension deficit.

It may also involve inviting more local policymakers on to campus: if a university is based, as many are, in a constituency represented by an MP from an opposition party but situated in part of the country where most seats are represented by the governing party, it is vitally important to reach out to all public representatives across the region.

Take the 58 parliamentary constituencies in the East of England, for example. Nearly all (52) are represented by Conservative MPs. But the places where the most higher education happens, such as Cambridge, Norwich South and Luton South, are represented by Labour MPs. Institutions in such places need to reach beyond their own MPs to the numerous other local MPs that may know much less about the fantastic things that go on in places like Anglia Ruskin University, the University of East Anglia and the University of Bedfordshire.

Above all, unless we think the next spending review will continue to be delayed and despite the continuing disruptions caused by COVID, the second option of the three above means doing these things now rather than waiting until it is too late to leave the right impression on the Treasury beancounters and others across Westminster and Whitehall.

Although this blog may read as if it is primarily about institutions in England, given the focus on Whitehall and Westminster, the consequences of spending reviews undertaken in London are generally profound for all four parts of the UK.


  1. Sir Anthony Seldon says:

    Excellent sense. I hope people listen and act: for all the progress that has been made, there’s still much to be done in this thicket. Anthony Seldon

  2. albert wright says:

    Insightful comments as ever. By all means, raise the alarm but the sector needs to have stronger arguments in its own defence and communicate them better.

    If their role is ‘to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions’. they are not up to date nor up to speed.

    The Government’s priorities are health protection and economic recovery. Universities need to push their contribution to both these themes and not suggest the temporary suspension of interest charges on student loans during the pandemic as a major response.

    Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic will not be enough.

    Universities must recognise that the cost benefit equation is in default and there are better ways to level up the playing field for the socially disadvantaged than “wider participation” in University education.

    More needs to be done to advance talent at a much earlier stage by better funding from the age of 4 and not waiting until 18.

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