Accept number controls if you want higher fees, English v-cs told

Iain Mansfield aims to work on ‘breaking the impasse’ on funding in new thinktank role and denies being ‘culture warrior’

November 8, 2022
Accept number controls if you want higher fees, English v-cs told
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English universities may have to accept the introduction of student number controls if they want to secure increased funding, according to a former Westminster adviser, who aims to work on “breaking the impasse” in his new thinktank role.

Iain Mansfield was special adviser to Gavin Williamson as education secretary, then Michelle Donelan as higher education minister, before his time in the Department for Education ended in August as Ms Donelan exited in the Boris Johnson government’s dying days.

Mr Mansfield’s influence was writ large in ministerial speeches intensely sceptical about the economic value of some higher education, or warning of free speech threats in universities. He shaped the campus free speech bill currently in the House of Lords, as well as forming plans to introduce a minimum entry requirement and student number controls that the Sunak government will decide whether to progress.

Looking at “systemic challenges for the sector”, the “biggest challenge…is the fact you’ve got this declining unit of resource and there’s no obvious mechanism for how that gets reversed, under a Conservative or a Labour government”, Mr Mansfield told Times Higher Education, after becoming head of education and research at the Policy Exchange thinktank.

The fee cap was raised to £9,250 in 2017, but it will be frozen there until at least 2024-25. In the long term, declining funding will “really threaten the quality of our university sector”, said Mr Mansfield.

“My own view on this is that as long as you have uncontrolled [student] numbers, then you will see a declining unit of resource,” he continued. In other sectors such as the NHS, there is control on costs, Mr Mansfield argued: “Everywhere else, Treasury can control.”

“I think the Treasury’s concern overall is on value and quality and return on investment,” he continued. “I certainly saw very little appetite anywhere [in government] really to put more money into the sector as it stands at the moment.

“Controls don’t necessarily have to mean contraction,” Mr Mansfield went on, and concerns about student number controls “can be overdone” given that they operated until 2015.

At Policy Exchange, Mr Mansfield hopes to do work on “breaking the impasse” in funding. He said: “I’d love to move the conversation away from how do we raise the money – ie, grant or graduate tax or fees – and back to what’s actually the more central question, which is: how much money is going to universities?…Should we be making it more? If so, how do we do that in a way that can have buy-in?”

Some vice-chancellors would argue that, with UK universities being one of the nation’s few world-class exports, ministers’ tone while Mr Mansfield was in office was too hostile.

“I don’t really recognise that,” Mr Mansfield said. He highlighted “fantastic working with universities on international students”, with the 600,000 target for UK international student recruitment achieved well ahead of schedule.

But some courses have dropout rates or employment prospects that are “very bad compared to peers”, he added. “It’s only right we answer those questions, just as we would require a school that was performing very badly or an NHS trust that was well below its peers to answer those.”

Is he a “culture warrior”?

“I don’t like that description,” said Mr Mansfield. “Free speech has always been traditionally very much a classic liberal value which has been accepted across our society.”

He continued: “Thankfully, we haven’t got the levels of polarisation around HE that you see in the US. Actually, maintaining that sort of consensus is important if we want to maintain long-term support for our institutions.”

The Johnson government in which Mr Mansfield served had levelling-up in the regions as its stated aim. Is place neglected in England’s market-led higher education system?

That is “a really fair challenge”, said Mr Mansfield. If student numbers were controlled and “you had a little more stability in the system, you do start bringing out the possibility of using grant funding, for example, to boost areas that you want to level up, or create incentives to grow in particular [subject] areas…while being respective of autonomy for universities”, he argued.

Universities such as “Derby, Lincoln, Sunderland, Portsmouth…have really shown they can deliver high-quality education really connected to their region, great graduate outcomes for people from a really wide range of backgrounds,” he went on.

But he added: “One of the challenges of the current system is it’s very hard for government…to build on that.”


Print headline: Accept numbers cap for fee rise, v-cs told

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Reader's comments (2)

An underlying issue is, why so so many jobs / career paths require a degree, when they never did 30 years ago? is this because the work has become more technical - or are employeres now using universities as free (for the employer) job training where before they provided in-work training? In this case a financial biurden has shifted from employer to employee, perhaps inequitably so. However at least our debt-based society (young people now need to take on a debt bigger than a small Republic's in the 1960s - not just for degrees but for housing too) will ensure stability and compliance, as you don't go on strike or cause disruption when you are saddled with a string of monthly debt repayments for years to come. Big Brother says DoublePlus Good Good to that.
John Morgan, in his summary of Iain Mansfield's CV, omits that in 2014 Mansfield won the Institute of Economic Affairs's £100,000 Brexit Prize with an essay that opened with the words: "Exiting from the EU should be used as an opportunity to embrace openness. The UK should pursue free trade agreements with major trading nations such as China, the USA and Russia..." Iain Mansfield does not like the term 'culture warrior', but he surely is one, fighting on the conservative side of the barricades. John Morgan's done well to highlight Mansfield, because Mansfield is a hugely influential thinker on the right, who will move between think tank roles and ministerial advisory roles for decades to come. Terence Kealey