The UK’s university sector is likely to move towards nationalisation, with some institutions coming back under “local democratic control”, University of Oxford academic Danny Dorling has predicted.
The Halford Mackinder professor of geography said that institutions that get into financial “trouble” in the future are unlikely to merge with nearby institutions, as has happened in the past, and will instead end up owned by the state.
“I think you’re going to have to have a case again of local authorities actually taking control of buildings when the finances go wrong,” he told Times Higher Education.
Professor Dorling highlighted that the UK’s health service was nationalised in 1948 “because Britain couldn’t afford to run an efficient health service after the Second World War”.
Although full nationalisation of this scale was unlikely to happen with universities, he said, the higher education sector was “very inefficient” and towns and cities would “take back their universities” if they foundered.
“Some universities will come back under local democratic control, and many universities will become parts of their cities again – rather than pretending to be civic but not teaching local young adults,” he said.
Professor Dorling added: “This is local nationalisation…It’s very costly to run a market like [higher education] – you end up sending young people right across the country; you end up having a lot of expensive student accommodation.
“Britain’s becoming poorer, and trying to run something that is inefficient and expensive when you’re becoming poorer as a country eventually doesn’t work.”
Professor Dorling discussed his ideas in a lecture at Anglia Ruskin University on 19 October about how England’s educational systems could be fairer in 2027.
While he predicted that tuition fees would still exist in England a decade from now, they would be lower than the current level of £9,250 and the government would largely fund higher education, he believed.
“But the national government will not pay as much as the fees and loans have been paying,” Professor Dorling said. “You’re talking about trying to run higher education in 2027 with less money.”
One way in which the country could save costs would be for more people to live at home and study locally or go to university later in life.
However, the UK could “easily afford government-funded” university places, he said, because it has some of the lowest taxes in Western Europe.
Professor Dorling also hit out at England's student loans, calling the system “an argument for very high inequality in the future”.
The loans system promotes the idea that “graduates should get much bigger salaries than other people”, while the richest students who can pay complete tuition fees up front benefit most from the system, he said.
“Unless people like inequality or can be taught to like it, which is hard, then the population will turn against the logic of loans,” he said.
A move towards local nationalisation and the abolition of student loans would not necessarily rely on a Labour government, given that “all of politics [is] moving slightly to the left”, Professor Dorling continued.
“If you look at what [universities minister] Jo Johnson has said about [vice-chancellors’] salaries and what [Lord] Adonis has said about fees – Adonis is hardly a left-wing Labour person – you can see the steps are being taken, the shuffle back to where we were when we didn’t have such faith in the market,” he said.