UK universities are lucky to be under the microscope

The increased scrutiny of university finances and governance is proof that universities continue to play a critical role in society and economic growth, argues Robert Van de Noort

February 21, 2019
Under the microscope

I enjoy a challenge. It’s why I love the riverside at dawn, with the prospect of a long row ahead, or the start of a big research project. And it’s why I was happy to become the University of Reading’s acting vice-chancellor. This is a great institution with much to offer the world.

Based on what others have said about us in recent weeks, you might think otherwise. On 9 February, The Guardian said that Reading was in a “financial and governance crisis”. Two days later, Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, raised “serious concerns” about Reading’s financial situation in a House of Commons debate. Then my colleagues in our local University and College Union branch passed a motion of no confidence in Reading’s governing council – and the executive board, and the university’s entire governance structure.

Whether or not this is fair criticism (spoiler: it’s not), it does show that universities are maintaining their position in the political spotlight. I’d argue that we are lucky to be here.

The University of Reading faces plenty of challenges. But let’s be clear: we are not facing insolvency. We do not need bailing out, rescue packages or bridging loans. The university is in a sound financial position, with assets of nearly half a billion pounds and income of more than £300 million.

The article in The Guardian highlighted an issue that we have already dealt with, relating to the sale of land belonging to a charity for which the university was both trustee and beneficiary. Acting on the best advice available, we took steps last year to resolve this, and there are no wider implications for the university group’s finances.

This concerned a historical issue of governance that needed to be put right. But the reaction from some sections of the media, politics and the higher education sector shows how in the current febrile environment, any issue of finance and management of universities becomes a lightning rod for other, often unrelated, factors.

Some have even questioned the motivations for our former vice-chancellor, Sir David Bell, who left last year to become leader of the University of Sunderland. Times Higher Education listed him under the headline “Tough at the top: v-cs who left under a cloud”. 

While the wider article does an excellent job at highlighting the need for new models of governance, this is a gross misrepresentation of reality. I object to the “nudge-nudge” implications. As Sir David explained to me, his motivation was to return to a region with which he has strong past links and where he felt he still had much to contribute. He believes in the transformative power of higher education. So do I.

All this extra attention might appear tiresome to a university sector that had become used to keeping its head down and getting on with things. But despite the challenges it brings, the increased scrutiny of university finance and governance is something I welcome.

University leaders often talk about the importance of higher education to the UK, so we can’t have it both ways. Universities play a critical part in our society, in the economy and in policy formation, so it’s not surprising that people feel the need to contribute to discussions about our developing roles. We should be subject to a high degree of scrutiny, and we can sometimes be overly sensitive to criticism.

But we should avoid continuing to fight the last war. Whatever our views on tuition fees, marketisation and student number controls, that world has been our reality for the past four years and has been evolving for generations. There are no doubt more changes on the horizon: not only those that are already in the diary – the Augar review of higher education funding, the impact of Brexit, the cost of our pension commitments and the role of the Office for Students – but also changes that have recently been signalled were there to be a change of government.

These are serious matters for the sector, and they must be factored into our decision-making. But it is unhelpful to mix these wider challenges with specific local issues, as some have sought to do with Reading recently. The result is a skewed picture of our position that I just do not recognise.

My to-do list is more mundane. Top of that list is improving the education and environment for our students, and supporting our excellent research. All university leaders would no doubt say the same thing; we must remember that whatever the external pressures we face, we exist primarily to help our students take a big step up in their lives, whatever stage they have reached. 

Next on my list is dealing with a financial shortfall, the result of an under-recruitment of undergraduates in some subject areas. Putting these two priorities together is difficult. We will have to cut our overall number of staff and consider the balance of subjects we offer, and we are reviewing operations at our campus in Malaysia.

We currently have open a voluntary redundancy scheme, but we cannot altogether rule out compulsory redundancies. I don’t like being in this position – no university leader would. But failure to act now will only lead to worse problems in the near future.

Higher education policy is critical to the future of the UK, not just to the institutions that make up its core. So I welcome the extra attention on university governance. We can and should change with the times, rather than defend old models or pretend to have all the answers. Whatever is coming our way, we can prepare to meet those challenges with confidence.

Robert Van de Noort is acting vice-chancellor at the University of Reading.

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