The marketisation of English higher education is causing a “crisis” in university finances that may force the government into radically shifting its policy focus towards “the well-being of the system overall” and universities’ responsibilities to their local communities, according to an influential researcher.
John Goddard, emeritus professor of regional development studies at Newcastle University, spoke after co-authoring a report for the Welsh government titled Maximising universities’ civic contribution, which recommends that this role be assessed as a “formal aspect of universities’ performance” and tied to institutional funding.
It suggests that universities should be evaluated on areas such as equity of access, engagement with the business and cultural sectors in their region, and the programmes they develop on issues such as ethics, environmental justice and sustainable development.
The report could also have major potential implications for England – where it warns that “territorially blind formula funding mechanisms” have created “a strong hierarchy of institutions focusing on London and the south east of England”, with English universities coming to see civic engagement as an “inferior and optional mission”.
Professor Goddard, an internationally respected doyen of research on universities’ civic roles, is a member of the ongoing UPP Foundation Civic University Commission – chaired by Lord Kerslake, former head of the UK Civil Service.
The Welsh report outlines the ways that universities act as “anchor institutions” in their towns, cities and regions: in addressing employer demand for skills, as major employers, as purchasers of goods and services, and as a “global gateway for…attracting investment and mobile talent to the area”.
The policy climate in Wales is very different from that in England, with a “real commitment” from Kirsty Williams, the Welsh cabinet secretary for education, to “mobilise Welsh universities for contributing to civil society”, Professor Goddard said.
He contrasted this with England’s 2017 Higher Education and Research Act – which abolished the Higher Education Funding Council for England and split oversight of teaching and research between the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation – describing this legislation as a “monument” to marketisation.
The “pressure in Wales to do something differently might be…prompted by the impending upheaval in the English system”, said Professor Goddard, former deputy vice-chancellor at Newcastle. “Particularly if [the English] Augar [review] implements the rumoured cut in fees and…universities go bust.”
Times Higher Education has shown that many of the English universities with the largest deficits are those that have struggled to recruit students since the government introduced an unrestricted recruitment market – and that many are in towns and cities with the most acute economic challenges.
The research excellence framework and its predecessor exercises have produced hierarchies of institutions, which “by and large go with the hierarchy of cities and regions”, said Professor Goddard. “As you go down the urban hierarchy you get lower-ranking [universities]. And the places that need the universities the most are those [with universities] under most financial pressure.”
The collapse of a university would be “absolutely disastrous” for its town or city and would prompt an outcry led by local MPs, Professor Goddard said. Despite the OfS being a competition regulator with no role to ensure institutional viability, the government “won’t be able to let it [an institutional failure] happen – somehow some mechanism for mergers will have to take place” and stronger universities would take over an ailing institution, he predicted.
He continued: “The crisis that marketisation has introduced – together with all the issues of left-behind places linked into Brexit – I think that’s going to force the hand of whoever’s in government to try and think about how you look at the well-being of the [English higher education] system overall.”
In Wales, the government is creating a single regulator to cover all post-secondary education plus research, while in England the further education sector has lobbied the Augar review to introduce a single tertiary regulator.
Professor Goddard said: “The strategic issue for government [in England] is how does it, in the context of a market-driven system, steer and regulate the system in the public interest?”
The report for the Welsh government, co-authored with Ellen Hazelkorn and others and published by Cardiff University’s Wales Centre for Public Policy, recommends “providing engagement funding for universities contingent on collaboration and alignment with Welsh national and regional priorities” on a time-limited basis to drive change.
In England, Professor Goddard said that while there are many “really top-flight universities that are beginning to reappraise their responsibilities to place”, there needs to be an overall sector strategy to incentivise “place-based civic engagement strategies where [universities] are listening to the needs and demands of their communities”.
Print headline: Report: tie funding to civic engagement