Would MPs let their local university go bust?

Matt Waddup considers the bizarre situation in which the UK universities regulator will allow the demise of its own sector

November 6, 2018
Broke, piggy bank, money, skint
Source: iStock

Another day, another set of fatalistic headlines for universities. Tuesday’s lot were particularly worrying as it was the sector’s regulator – the chair of the Office for Students (OfS) – on the attack, warning that he would happily let universities go to the wall.

In a speech, OfS chair Sir Michael Barber insisted that, although he’d allow universities to go bust, he would protect students. The OfS’ one job is to protect students, but allowing universities to go bust is not the way to do this.

Students who study close to home often do so because they don’t have the means (financial or otherwise) to go further afield. The university regulator precipitating in the demise of their local institution is not protecting their interests – quite the opposite.

Former universities minister Jo Johnson talked about “market entrants” and “market exits” within higher education. The theory that a university going bust is what happens in a functioning market might make some sense in theory, but none in reality.

The true cost of closure would be students holding degrees from a now-defunct institution, thousands unable to complete their course and the very real threat of all sorts of legal action. Legal action most likely against the OfS for keeping information from students it let apply to a university on the brink of extinction.

As the BBC’s Sean Coughlan wrote last week: “Imagine the wrath of students and their parents if they had been allowed to start a course at a university, when the minister knew it was in serious financial trouble. It would be like letting people buy a boat that you knew was likely to sink.”

He went on to point out that there is a “deep inherent contradiction in creating a market with the risk of financial extinction, but also keeping information away from students who are being asked to invest their future”.

While there may be MPs who believe that the market trumps all and a university going bust may be a consequence of that, we doubt that many would allow an institution in their own constituency to fail. The theory of a university failing is, once again, very different to the reality. To put that to the test, we have written to every MP with a university in their constituency asking if they would be happy for their university to go bust. Included on our list are leading Leave campaigners Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, as well as skills minister Anne Milton.

It beggars belief that any rational politician would voluntarily seek to reduce our country’s intellectual, social and cultural capital. Universities are being built in places such as India, Russia and China, but here we have a bizarre situation where the regulator is talking up their demise.

Allowing a university to go to the wall has ramifications far beyond education – universities are often one of the key employers in an area and their impact on the local economy and on local opportunities is difficult to overstate.

As Chris Havergal noted last week in Times Higher Education: “What is striking is that some of the English universities with the largest deficits are located in parts of the country where the higher education sector has a crucial role to play in rejuvenating the local economy, particularly as Brexit approaches: in the north east, the north west and the south west, for example.”

There are a host of reasons universities may be struggling, but a fair few of those are direct results of government policy. I’d include the universities cited by Havergal among them. 

The OfS surely should reflect on the impact of government policy on both universities and certain regions of the country, as Times Higher Education’s John Morgan suggested.

It is not good enough for the OfS to tell universities to “adapt or die” under the new regime. Of course universities need to be properly run and that should be the OfS’ chief concern. The regulator should focus its efforts on ensuring better governance structures and scrutiny of the decisions taken at universities’ top tables. Crucially, the OfS should be supporting universities to excel, not washing their hands when things don't go to plan.

A government facing Brexit should be looking at options to develop our skills base and rejuvenate areas of the country that so desperately need it. We don’t believe that rational MPs will join the regulator or the minister in seeking ways to get rid of one of the key economic anchors in their constituency. The letters are in the post and we will share the results.

Matt Waddup is head of policy and campaigns at the University and College Union.

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