Fee cut ‘catastrophic’ for English universities, warn v-cs

Sector leaders say Augar-inspired cut to tuition fees in England would damage sector

November 28, 2019
Question time at THE Live

Many English universities would face “catastrophic” financial difficulties that may force some to close if annual undergraduate tuition fees were reduced to £7,500, a vice-chancellor has warned.

As part of its manifesto published on 24 November, the Conservatives pledged to “consider carefully” the “thoughtful” recommendations of the Augar review, which called on the government to cut annual tuition fees in England to £7,500.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s THE Live, Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton, said reducing fees to this level would put many higher education institutions at risk.

“It would be catastrophic for any government to introduce such a scheme,” said Professor Petford, on a panel of university leaders.

“The thought of making cuts because there is some asinine suggestion that universities can ‘deal with it’ is ridiculous,” added Professor Petford, who argued that “tuition fees are £9,250 for a reason because that is what it costs” to educate students and provide other associated services for them.

The ongoing freeze on tuition fees in England, which have not risen since 2016, was already posing a challenge to UK universities given wage and other inflationary pressures, he added.

“If you applied the same [freeze in income] to the NHS, people would be out on the streets,” said Professor Petford, who added that “our gas bill has not stayed constant, nor has our electricity bill or the cost of providing pensions”.

Asked if a UK university might go bust within five years, Staffordshire University’s vice-chancellor Liz Barnes said “a large number of universities would be in financial difficulty”, particularly if a £7,500 fee limit was introduced.

“They would tend to be those institutions in rural areas, or higher education cold spots, but I think the political pressure [of a local institution closing] would mean someone would step in,” Professor Barnes added.

However, universities would be forced to find significant savings if fees were reduced, she added, with many likely to prove unpopular with the local community. “We have our own police officer that we employ, so this is the sort of service that would go,” said Professor Barnes.

David Price, vice-provost (research) at UCL, who was also on the panel, agreed with Professor Barnes that political intervention might save some under-pressure institutions. “Will some universities become financially unviable [within five years]? Quite likely. But will they close? Maybe not,” he said.

Speaking in conversation with former universities minister Lord Willetts in a separate session, Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, said he also believed government would intervene to help stricken institutions. “Alternative providers will sink or swim [depending on their fortunes] and that will continue but I don’t think a mainstream university outside London would be left to fail,” Mr Rammell said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

The issue that's never talked about is value for money. Yes we spend an awful lot more than most competitor countries on student support, marketing, security etc. However, in many institutions the majority of staff employed do no teaching and half of those who do are on temporary contracts at best. So we should ask ourselves what do we want the money to be spent on. The OfS asked students and their top two priority areas are good teaching and fair assessment, not having a police officer on campus.

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