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The Government cannot afford to get it wrong on universities’ role in ‘Build Back Better’, ‘Levelling-up’ and making the UK a ‘Science Superpower’

  • 30 July 2021
  • By Giles Carden

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Giles Carden, Chief of Staff at Lancaster University.  

In recent months much ink has been spilled speculating on what shape and form the Government’s consultation on English tertiary education funding will take. The consultation is now expected to be published in line with the spending review later this year. Rumours abound about policy disagreements between the Department for Education, the Treasury and Number 10. Nevertheless, when the consultation finally drops in our inboxes, we will have a firmer idea on the strategic direction the Government has planned for English higher education.

Risks

The potential risks to the sector are well known: student number controls, a reduction in the fee, changes to student finance terms and conditions, minimum entry requirements, policies to drive value for money, prioritisation of STEM and healthcare subjects and a rebalancing of academic and technical education. Tony Blair’s mantra was ‘Education, Education, Education’, perhaps Boris Johnson’s new catchphrase will recast this mantra with the prefix ‘Further’? Populist shibboleths aside, it is possible that the reforms will be the most profound we have seen since the Dearing Review in the 1990s or even the Robbins Review of the 1960s. There is a lot at stake for both the Government, students and the higher education sector.

Universities’ role in ‘Levelling-up’ and ‘Build Back Better’

Will Tanner, director at the think tank Onward and a former senior policy advisor in Number 10, wrote in a recent article published in Politico on 15 July, ‘What is “levelling-up”?Anything you want it to be, Boris Johnson suggested on Thursday’, referring to the Prime Minister’s speech on the topic. Some quotes from the speech help to underline the point Tanner was making:

levelling up … will be the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough … the magic sauce … the ketchup of catch-up.

Regardless of the lack of policy detail, I would venture that in the minds of most people, especially constituents of the ‘Red Wall’ heartlands, ‘levelling-up’ largely means rebalancing regional economic growth to close the wealth gap by generating more better paid jobs and increased prosperity. I think we can safely assume that the Government views universities as integral to its plans to ‘Level-up’ and ‘Build Back Better’. This is perhaps illustrated by Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published in March this year, which describes the Government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade. At the heart of the document is a stated aim to make the UK a ‘Science Superpower’. One might ask can these aims be achieved without a healthy and well-resourced higher education sector?

Policy Challenge

The Government therefore has a challenge on its hands if it is to reform higher education, cut costs and still ensure universities make an important contribution to ‘Build Back Better’, ‘Levelling-up’ and making the UK a ‘Science Superpower’. The Treasury is eager to reduce its exposure to student loans. The measures implemented to achieve this could have varying degrees of impact on different parts of the sector. It is worth imagining some different scenarios. If the Government were to introduce a universal cut in the undergraduate fee to the touted figure of £7,500 and cap student numbers, this would self-evidently adversely impact the finances of all universities – research-intensive institutions included. This will inevitably damage the sector’s research base and only serve to compound the financial impact some institutions have felt from a fall in overseas student numbers during the pandemic.

A minimum entry requirements policy would be unlikely to impact the more research-intensive universities as they tend to recruit students with relatively high-entry qualifications at GSCE and A-level, while it is nonetheless viewed as a regressive move that would prevent students from disadvantaged backgrounds from entering higher education. Perhaps the Government will choose to introduce minimum requirements, lower the loan repayment threshold and extend the repayment period. This would again protect research-intensive universities. This might help shore-up the strategy to make the UK a ‘Science Superpower’ but would still have an adverse impact on the finances of a number of the less research-intensive universities which have an important contribution to make to ‘Build Back Better’ and ‘Levelling-up’. I have also often thought about what the political fallout might be if the only university in a Conservative-controlled County were to face bankruptcy… mergers are not easy to expedite in the higher education sector.

Only time will tell what the Government has planned for the sector but the policies which emerge will need to be finely balanced if they are not to damage a number of the Government’s other key priorities.

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