John Cridland, the head of the business lobbying organisation, was given a rough reception over his views at a fringe meeting at the Labour conference in Brighton last night, with the Million+ group of newer universities rejecting his argument.
“I do think we are probably – driven by the challenge of the cost base we are moving into – going to move into a period of some consolidation. Meaning some universities are going to close,” Mr Cridland told the Bright Britain event on universities and growth.
Asked how many universities could close, he said: “I’m not competent to judge that. But I suspect we have somewhat too many for our capacity to cope with them being separate – and there could be sensible consolidation.”
Mr Cridland added that he did not want to see a fall in overall student numbers. But some institutions are “a little bit too small” and are vulnerable to falls in recruitment from overseas, he told the event, hosted by Universities UK, GuildHE, the University Alliance, the 1994 Group, the Quality Assurance Agency and the National Union of Students.
It was “relevant” to look to the schools sector, Mr Cridland said, when he returned to the theme later in the meeting. “We’ve already seen stronger schools with better balance sheets, inspirational leadership, helping out schools that are not as well positioned and forming federations. I think that’s a good thing.”
He added: “You could well see in parts of the country greater collaboration between [higher education] institutions to share some overheads.”
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, challenged Mr Cridland from the audience. “In 2009, 2010, universities were full…The idea that we have a fringe about Bright Britain and we come away with the message that universities might go down the pan might not be a good one,” she said.
Ms Tatlow suggested that rather than “too many students” or “too many universities”, the problem was “a funding system that is not doing the right things”.
Mr Cridland said he would not want anyone to leave the event thinking “I came to this meeting to say we’ll end up with fewer universities. I don’t retreat from the point. I think at the margins it’s probably likely, because of the stresses and strains of the system.
“But if I wanted people to go away with any message from the CBI, it’s that we want a more flexible system that offers more opportunities for more students to be in business.”
Lord Stevenson, a Labour peer standing in on the panel for the Shabana Mahmood, the party’s shadow universities and science minister – who has hurt her leg in a fall - asked Mr Cridland why “business contributes a very small amount directly” to the higher education system.
Mr Cridland said there was already “more employer sponsorship” of study, but businesses “want a curriculum that’s more up to date, they want a curriculum that’s more relevant”.
He predicted that business-sponsored study would in future not involve fixed-term courses, but involve “far more interchange between the workplace and the educational establishment”.