- This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Susanna Kalitowski, Head of Policy at University Alliance.
If you ask any UK Vice Chancellor what’s keeping them awake at night, it’s highly likely to be the financial sustainability of their institution and the wider sector. Years of frozen funding coupled with rising costs are inevitably taking their toll across all four nations. University leaders are also increasingly worried about the impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on students – both current and prospective. The 2023-24 admissions cycle has seen the entry rate for the most under-represented students fall by a record margin.
One (small) silver lining is that the sector’s concerns are finally beginning to be taken seriously by some politicians and financial commentators. They are also attracting attention overseas – adding to the growing interest and pressure at home. After a detailed inquiry into higher education regulation in England, the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee concluded that both the Government and the Office for Students (OfS) are failing to act on the “looming financial crisis” facing the sector. It also seriously questioned the OfS’ approach to regulation and whether it provides value for money.
It will therefore come as little surprise that University Alliance is calling on the next government to urgently address financial shortfalls for students and universities in our new policy briefing, Let’s Get Technical: How to Harness the Power of Professional and Technical Universities to Deliver for the UK. We know we will not be alone in making this ask of political parties in the run-up to the general election, and note our shared recommendations with Universities UK (UUK) to reinstate maintenance grants for those who need them most and restore the unit of resource to the equivalent of 2015/16 levels as soon as practically possible. The Lords report called on the Government to “review how higher education is funded, setting long-term, sustainable funding and delivery models for the sector”. Although we acknowledge this is politically difficult, it cannot happen soon enough.
Including financial sustainability, Let’s Get Technical sets out five goals for the next UK Government, each with a set of specific actions to help deliver them. Some of these can be tackled immediately, whereas others will require government and the sector to collectively confront very hard decisions. Three goals focus on how government can enable Alliance universities to double-down on our key strengths: advancing businesses – particularly SMEs – and communities through research and innovation, helping to deliver a sustainable and transformed NHS workforce, and providing the high-level skills that individuals and employers need to navigate an uncertain future. We set out detailed recommendations on these in our policy briefing.
A fifth goal is wider, concerning the sector’s relationship with government. We believe that government higher education policy would benefit greatly from a clear vision: a coherent articulation of what post-18 education, training and research is for. In our experience, public policy is frequently disjointed and contradictory. It routinely fails to recognise and make the most of universities’ multiple roles, impeding the sector’s potential to support the economic recovery and key governmental priorities and ambitions.
For example, the independent Nurse Review recently concluded that the Government’s long-term objectives for research, development and innovation policy are being hindered by its policies on immigration, overseas development assistance and education. Even within the relatively narrow sphere of higher education policy, contradictions abound. The drive to make provision more diverse and flexible, notably through the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE), is fundamentally at odds with policies to regulate course quality through a narrow set of student outcomes. Many other examples like these can be found.
Although some inconsistencies are inevitable – and part of the messiness of politics – a long-term cross-government vision and strategy for post-18 education in England could make a real difference. The sector has clearly seen the value in having an International Education Strategy, which provides a useful model (although the omission of the Home Office is a major weakness). The strategy should contain clear aspirations and targets that are not solely the responsibility of one department. We also recommend that a single minister be given responsibility once again for both higher education teaching and research. Ideally, they would sit within the department responsible for research and innovation (currently the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology). This will ensure that government takes a more holistic view of universities that recognises their economic contribution. The International Education Strategy has really benefitted from having an independent Champion and we recommend an expert panel be set up to help develop, implement and champion the strategy.
The strategy should ultimately determine how much the state should spend on higher education and seek to guarantee long-term sustainable funding for teaching, student support, research and knowledge exchange. Currently, the UK invests less in post-18 education than many of its G7 counterparts, providing less than half as much per university student as Germany does. Without further investment the sector is facing managed decline at best and countless missed opportunities to power the economic recovery.
It would also be a lost opportunity if the strategy does not take a whole-of-tertiary approach, encompassing education and training delivered by the full range of higher education providers (and incentivising partnerships and pathways between them), as well as the research and innovation ecosystem. It must also consider the 50 per cent of people who do not currently access higher education, and how to reverse the sharp decline in part-time and mature learners.
As education is devolved, the post-18 vision and strategy will necessarily be for England. However, as far as possible there should be join-up and alignment with the devolved nations to protect the integrity and coherence of the UK higher education brand which is highly regarded overseas. The increasing divergence across the UK on quality assessment and standards should be addressed as a priority (yet another recommendation of the Lords!).
We are excited by the opportunities that a more strategic approach to higher education policy could bring. It has the potential to reset universities’ relationship with government and even form the basis of a new social contract between universities and society. As UA, we are confident that with a clear strategic direction and the right funding, regulation and policies in place, professional and technical universities can go further in supporting economic growth and delivering a better future for the UK.