December 1, 2020

Fears ‘economic hit squad’ will use Covid crisis to kill off some UK universities

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/nov/14/fears-economic-hit-squad-will-use-covid-crisis-to-kill-off-some-uk-universities

Higher education experts are warning that the government may use the coronavirus crisis to turn struggling universities into polytechnics and slash student numbers.

Ministers have appointed a board for the government’s “Higher education restructuring regime”, which has been set up to help universities in financial trouble. Some academics are calling it an “economic hit squad”.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that about 13 universities risk going bankrupt during the pandemic, because their already weak finances make it harder for them to weather losses in their teaching, commercial and research revenue. In May, the government refused pleas from Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, for a £2bn bail-out package for universities. Instead, struggling universities can now seek a loan from its shadowy new “restructuring regime”.

However, academics say universities are terrified of entering this regime – whose advisory board was announced quietly two weeks ago – because they fear it could kill them off, or a least sound the death knell for their autonomy. One senior academic close to the government, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “The feeling in government has been that there is a group of 20 to 30 universities at the bottom of the sector who don’t produce high earnings or good prospects, and need to be taken out.”

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, in a document published in July giving sparse details of how the new regime will work, emphasises that it is “not a guarantee that no organisation will fail”. The government will, it says, focus on supporting “high-quality” courses “aligned to economic need”. The board will consider whether some courses can be “offered more effectively” as non degrees – “level 4 or 5” courses – either at the institution, or in a further education college.

Emma Hardy, shadow minister for universities, said this week: “The higher education restructuring regime is being used by the government to take advantage of the pandemic to make cuts to courses and staff. Universities will be vital in creating jobs and retraining people as we recover from the impacts of this pandemic.”

Prof Des Freedman, co-head of the department of media, communications and cultural studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, says the lineup of the new board is already making universities nervous. It is chaired by the former Conservative minister Sir Simon Burns MP; other members include Amanda Blackhall O’Sullivan, business restructuring expert at Ernst & Young, and Richard Atkins, the FE commissioner for England. It has no academic members.

Des Freedman, co-head of the department of media, communications and cultural studies at Goldsmiths, University of London
Prof Des Freedman, of Goldsmiths, University of London: ‘It’s like an economic hit squad.’

“It’s like an economic hit squad deciding which institutions are worth saving – and if they are worth saving, what changes they have to make,” says Freedman. “The only honest thing about this is the word ‘restructuring’. The universities who are doing such an important job serving students from disadvantaged communities are going to be much more vulnerable. It’s a return to a two-tier system.”

Dr Eric Lybeck, a presidential academic fellow in Manchester University’s institute of education, says the new regime is driven by a “pre-Covid political agenda”. “This is the old idea of getting rid of ‘mickey mouse’ degrees and wanting some modern universities to go out of business. It’s the idea that their children must go to university, but others don’t need to.”

Lybeck points out that many of the universities that are struggling lost students – and their £9,250-a-year fees – at the last minute after the government’s August U-turn on A-level grades, when elite institutions were forced to honour offers and recruited many more students. “All they really need is some help to get through the Covid period and next year, until they can get on a stable footing again,” he says.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank and a former special adviser to the government, says: “There are people in government who would like any university that falls into the university ‘restructuring regime’ to come out of the sausage machine looking more like a caricature of the old polytechnic.”

The expectation in the sector is that universities going through the “regime” would be forced only to offer strongly vocational courses, which the government considers of value to the economy, probably shifting to shorter two-year courses, rather than three-year degrees, and resembling an FE college more than a traditional university.

Hillman says this would be deeply unpopular with parents and with local communities, who would not want to see their university “downgraded into something seen as inferior”.

Smita Jamdar
Smita Jamdar, head of education at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau, says the restructuring is ‘very opportunistic policymaking’. Photograph: PR

Smita Jamdar, head of education at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau, describes the restructuring as a piece of “very opportunistic policymaking” so the government can decide which universities survive. “They aren’t wasting a good crisis,” she says.

Jamdar predicts most universities will try to find rescue routes that will keep the regime at bay, such as attempting to federate or merge with another institution, although she fears this may not be possible. “If you’re a good strong institution it’s not clear why you would want to take on the risks involved in helping out a struggling one.”

Hillman agrees most universities will consider anything before submitting to this sort of government control. “If a university is faced with going into this restructuring regime, losing their autonomy and emerging as a totally unrecognisable institution, they may well decide that accepting foreign or private money is not such an unpalatable alternative,” he says, including approaching private companies in the UK, or abroad, that may be interested in buying into a British university and running it for profit.

John Arnold, professor of medieval history at the University of Cambridge, says the government’s attempted level of interference runs directly counter to the market it has set up in higher education. “Insisting courses must be vocational and dictating which institutions are to deliver them smacks of the kind of centralised Soviet planning that Conservative governments usually decry,” he says.

He is concerned that the government may make bad choices about which courses have value and, in particular, may dismiss subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences. “There is not a one-to-one relationship between what people study at university and what they end up doing in their lives,” he says.

The government has been influenced by controversial data published in 2019 that tracks graduates to the age of 29 through their tax returns. Arnold argues, however, that value can not be judged by salary. He says that although the “hard sciences” have been crucial in the coronavirus pandemic, the government has also needed a wide range of other knowledge.

“They have needed experts on how people behave, advice on how to communicate, and historians giving us examples of how people have reacted to similar things in the past. And in lockdown we have all realised we need people who produce things that help the life of the mind, taking us beyond our restrained circumstances,” he says.

The Department for Education says: “We understand the challenges universities are facing, which is why we have already provided a range of support to ease financial pressures, which we expect to stabilise finances. The restructuring regime is a last-resort measure to support providers facing the risk of financial failure as a result of Covid-19.”

“The independently chaired board includes members with a range of educational and financial experience, and will provide advice to ministers on individual cases on whether to intervene. No cases have yet been considered by the board.”