Husbands warns research cuts could force Russell Group expulsions

Continuing on current path will lead to course closures, reduced research investment and mergers, says former Sheffield Hallam vice-chancellor

June 6, 2024
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UK universities could be forced to close courses, increase class sizes, focus research investment and consider mergers if they continue on their current trajectory, a former vice-chancellor has warned.

Outlining one scenario for how the sector might look in future in a new paper, Sir Chris Husbands, who led Sheffield Hallam University between 2017 and 2023, said a lack of any serious attempt to address funding difficulties could also see scholarships cut, welfare services pared back and moves to “more flexible staffing models”.

Universities that were previously research-intensive may have to “significantly” shift their business plans, which could even lead to their expulsion from the Russell Group, the paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute on 6 June says.

Describing what the hypothetical scenario could look like, it says: “While the sector remained large, the number of institutions fell by comparison with the early 2020s and government and the sector became adept in managing mergers and market exits.”

Sir Chris told Times Higher Education that the description would be seen by many as one of “unpalatable decline and I wouldn’t disagree with that. But it is the trajectory we are currently on.”

“If there isn’t action, this is where we will end up,” he said. “You can see it happening now: universities are making some really tough decisions that involve de-specifying elements of the model, because they have got to.”

Currently the sector is being told by government “we want you to deliver a high-touch, high-cost, high-quality model, but we are not going to allow you the resources to do it”, which Sir Chris said was “just crazy”.

Another scenario outlined in the paper is therefore one that delivers on the government’s vision but involves universities being properly funded to “do the job they are being asked to do”.

Two more options are outlined: closer integration with further education to create a “place-based tertiary system” or sharper differentiation between research and teaching institutions.

Sir Chris said the exercise was not intended to make predictions for the future but to follow what the repercussions of various policy changes could be to help shape thinking in the sector.

The paper says that “many institutions will look fundamentally different in five years’ time” and all the roads ahead require “painful choices”.

Even the second scenario that is mostly closely aligned with the policy wishes of university leaders comes with downsides, it adds.

The paper estimates that this system would cost £8 billion more and it would also be seen as “politically expensive”, according to Sir Chris, because it would involve increasing fees and, although it would take university deficits out of the headlines, it “does not offer the government much that is new”.


Print headline: Research cuts ‘could force Russell Group exits’

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Reader's comments (2)

Undoubtedly the funding model has to change otherwise VC's and other senior leaders may end up being paid what they are actually worth and their vanity projects and foreign trips cancelled. Accountability may even be intoduced into the model in the worst case scenario !
I am really sorry to say that this trend has been going on for at least the last 15-20 yrs but academics have largely lacked the hard headed unity needed to take the sector in less market driven direction. The sector has been getting away with an Animal Farm model for staff. This is where Boxer exports himself to work harder and when he lays broken with overwork, he is despatched to the Knackers Yard for his bones to yield a last profit being boiled down to glue. Tragically extending this Orwellian metaphor, there are plenty of young naive geldings in the paddock waiting to be blinkered with promises of green fields and daisies, but first they need to be put to work and the story repeats...