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It’s a wrap! What did we learn about the best way to fund higher education from our UK tour – in London, Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff?

  • 9 March 2024
  • By Nick Hillman
  • HEPI Director Nick Hillman sums up the discussions heard during the last fortnight’s HEPI / London Economics / Nuffield Foundation events across the UK.

It’s a wrap! Over the past two weeks, HEPI has hosted events in London, Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff in conjunction with the Nuffield Foundation and London Economics.

The theme in each place was higher education fees and funding, with a backdrop of:the forthcoming Westminster election and other political goings on – like:

  • the current election of a new Labour Leader (and thus First Minister) in Wales;
  • a brand new Executive finding their feet in Northern Ireland;
  • Budget Day at Westminster; and
  • manoeuvring before the next Holyrood election in Scotland (although that is not due until May 2026).

Travelling to and from these major UK cities within such a short space of time, with an additional trip for me to a brilliant Higher Education Authority conference at Dublin’s Croke Park stadium in between, is the closest I will ever get as a think-tank director to feeling like a rock star on tour. So I am still buzzing from the experience, including the deep engagement from our diverse audiences as well as our panels of speakers, which included the leaders of Universities UK, Universities Scotland, MillionPlus and LondonHigher, various elected student representatives and institutional leaders from traditional, modern and atypical institutions – including a former Cabinet Minister.

One intriguing thing was that each of the conversations in the four places had a completely different focus and tenor, even though some of the comparative information being presented from the London Economics and Nuffield Foundation studies was the same. This variety was not entirely surprising, given the growing divergence in funding and regulatory policies across the four parts of the UK and when each part of the UK has different political parties in charge. But it fully justified our (costly) decision to go on tour in person.

We recorded the sessions in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland (but could not do so for technical / venue reasons in Wales). So anyone who wants to listen back to three of the four can do so – just take a look at our YouTube channel, which is gradually being populated with the information. But in this blog here and now, I want to look at the main differences between the four events.

In London, the panel was – above all – focused on the funding situation faced by English universities and the ways in which policymakers might be persuaded to divert more financial resources to English higher education providers, even if that only means more in cash terms rather than in real terms and despite the tricky political and economic environment. (As we heard, we were meeting in the institution that inspired Jarvis Cocker to write Pulp’s Common People – ‘She studied sculpture at St Martin’s College’ – but I admit that, more than once during the session, I thought of The Wonder Stuff CD my parents gave me for passing my GCSEs 36 years ago, which included a song called ‘It’s Yer Money I’m After, Baby‘.)

Across the four events, there was a real breadth to the discussions and, in London, that came partly by looking at the specific challenges of running an institution in the UK capital (bolstered by the presence on the panel of the CEO of London Higher, Dr Diana Beech) and the challenges inherent in specialist provision (given our venue was University of the Arts London and our host was their Vice-Chancellor, the Rt Hon. James Purnell).

We also heard about the importance of building a funding model that incorporates wider societal values, a point made forcefully by the musician Amira Campbell, President at the University of Birmingham Guild of Students, who has since announced she is standing to become the next President of the National Union of Students (NUS).

In Belfast, in contrast, there was much less hope in the likelihood of much additional money any time soon, given the new Executive is still finding its feet and has so many other priorities. This might have made for a depressing conversation but, in fact, it was the opposite: there was a focus instead from both the institutional and student leaders on the panel on making the money that is available go further for the benefit of learners, as well as on the need for more student places for local people.

It was one of the events where cross-border flows of students came up a lot, not least because a material proportion of students in Northern Ireland come from the Republic of Ireland but are treated as home students for the purposes of student support (and student number caps) and because a considerable number of students from Northern Ireland choose to (or have to) study in Great Britain.

There was also a greater focus at the session in Belfast than there had been in London on students other than full-time undergraduates. The presence on the panel of a representative of the Open University in the form of John D’Arcy, who is the Director of the Open University for both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, ensured the option of filling skills shortages via part-time study by older students was given due weight. The real funding challenges faced by postgraduates came up too.

In Edinburgh, there was a palpable sense of relief that a more open conversation about higher education funding was beginning to take shape than has been common in recent years. The stifling impact of the arguments engraved on the infamous ‘Salmond stone’ and the subsequent acceptance across much of the political spectrum of so-called ‘free’ education was, we heard, finally – seemingly – starting to lift. Alison Payne of Reform Scotland, for example, floated her ideas for improving funding while avoiding the terms ‘fees’ and ‘debt’. It was widely felt that this sort of conversation was vital if issues such as the huge underfunding of the many higher education students enrolled in Scotland’s colleges (which have a unit of resource of around half an English university) or the absence of proper support for part-time students or the impact of student number caps are ever going to be addressed.

But the panel, which in Sir Paul Grice included a Principal / Vice-Chancellor who spent two decades as Clerk and Chief Executive of the Scottish Parliament, nonetheless expressed sympathy for Scotland’s politicians (including those in the audience) who are trying to find their way out of the political challenges. There was uncertainty over whether the forthcoming Westminster election or the subsequent Holyrood election would end up being more important in terms of future higher education funding in Scotland – the majority view seemed to be that both may prove critical. Moreover, as one journalist present remarked to me at the event, if Keir Starmer wins power at Westminster in 2024, then what he does in Whitehall during the months before the subsequent Scottish Parliament elections could prove crucial for the Holyrood results and what happens afterwards.

Our final stop was Cardiff, where we had another enriching conversation. The Welsh student funding model, built on top of the Diamond review of 2016, loomed large over all four sessions as many people seem to think the Welsh funding system is the best (though still imperfect) anywhere in the UK.

So the focus of the conversation in Cardiff, where the panel included representatives from Wrexham University and Cardiff University as well as the Director of the Open University’s PolicyWISE, was perhaps unsurprisingly on the ways the system has worked well (for example, for postgraduate students, at least to date) and on the progressive nature of the real interest rate on student loans (which no longer exists anywhere else in the UK).

The panel also focused on the areas where things could conceivably be done better – Maria Hinfelaar of Wrexham University suggested there remained scope to reduce bureaucracy, improve efficiencies, collaborate more (for example, with local authorities) and do further work to broaden access.

Some of the audience were shocked to hear that the most generous system for students anywhere in the UK also has a comparatively low higher education participation rate (which will have many causes, including performance at school). We also heard, moreover, that the more generous maintenance support has not been enough to stave off real poverty for some students, with the President of NUS Wales Orla Tarn telling some harrowing anecdotes.

When asked whether the election for Welsh Labour leader or the Westminster election or the next Welsh Assembly elections would prove most decisive for higher education, there was more than one answer, although no one underestimated the importance of decisions taken at Westminster in determining what ends up happening in Wales.

Although it is often said that we need to break down barriers between higher education institutions and policymakers and even to embed more academics close to power, we also heard – counter-intuitively – that the resignation of Mark Drakeford as First Minister might help universities in their lobbying efforts. Apparently Drakeford’s background as a Sociology academic means he has sometimes not accepted information from the higher education sector at face value …

We are grateful to all those who hosted us: UAL, QUB, the University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University, the individual staff at these institutions that helped us with the practical arrangements and the 17 panellists. And of course none of it could have happened without the Nuffield Foundation’s financial support, London Economics’s research or my colleagues at HEPI who made the events happen. Thank you all! We hope the tour has prompted conversations that will continue long afterwards.

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