Instability risks more ‘politically toxic’ overseas reliance

King’s vice-chancellor also argues there’s a long-term need to be ‘open to the idea’ of some universities charging higher fees than others

February 7, 2024

An “unstable” English university funding system could force institutions to further increase their “politically toxic” reliance on international student fees, while in the long term there is a need to be “open to the idea” of letting some universities charge higher fees than others, according to the King’s College London vice-chancellor.

Shitij Kapur made the comments at a webinar, hosted by the King’s Policy Institute, in which sector and policy figures responded to his recent paper arguing that universities find themselves in a “triangle of sadness” between discontented students, staff and government.

He said of the situation in institutional finances brought about by a long-running decline in teaching funding per home student: “We wouldn’t want a university to fail. We will, of course, react to that, but that would be a knee-jerk reaction.”

The funding picture has created a “very unstable equilibrium, largely being maintained with the support of international students”, he continued.

“If we do not do anything, one of two of these outcomes will happen: either universities will continue to increase their reliance on international students – that I would say is now becoming politically difficult and toxic in our own domestic environment; or they will sacrifice their quality and outcomes. I think that would be really sad, given we have one of the finest systems in the world.”

Given that the Westminster government “subsidises [higher] education to the lowest levels in the OECD…we do need to look to a higher grant rather than higher fees”, Professor Kapur argued.

In the longer term, there was also a need to consider differentiation in a system where there are about 150 universities and “the tariff for them is all the same”, he said.

There were two types of differentiation, he noted. Differentiation as in Singapore or California, where “universities are given different missions – and funding according to their mission”.

“Or,” he continued, “the systems that are currently being tried in Australia and Canada, where there are fee differentials that are contemplated. These are early experiments; we don’t as yet know the results, and I don’t know what would be right for the UK. But we have to be open to the idea of differentiation.”

Vivienne Stern, the Universities UK chief executive, noted that Professor Kapur’s “triangle of sadness” referred to a film – and made her own film reference by invoking “that scene in Gremlins with the swimming pool”, in which the creatures multiply at speed.

She continued: “The swimming pool is massification. Each of our systems [in the West] is dealing with the logical consequence of a drive to go from an elite system of higher education to a mass system of higher education.”

While some politicians argued that massification has gone too far, “there’s an argument we have to carry on down this road”, Ms Stern said. “Because you’re still twice as likely to enter higher education if you’re from the highest social group in society, compared to the least advantaged.

“Massification: we ain’t done with it. The swimming pool – it might feel like it’s full; it probably isn’t quite yet. That gives politicians a hard question to answer about how you fund massification. And it’s a question we as a higher education sector can’t afford to dodge, either.”

On funding, Ms Stern said the “simple first step we must take is to stop the amount of money that is put into the funding of teaching for an individual student going down in all four nations [of the UK]. In England, for me the simple solution is you have to link the fee to inflation…that’s not putting the fee up, it’s simply stopping it going down.”

James Purnell, the University of the Arts London vice-chancellor and former Labour Cabinet minister, invoked the Blair target for 50 per cent participation he shaped in a call for a more strategic approach to higher education policy.

“I won’t say today what I think the participation level would be, but I do think we need an overall framework to guide and support individual choice,” he added, saying this should include “what proportion of students are going into university, into other training, into apprenticeships and at what cost”; a sector commitment to maximise efficiency; and “a consensus on the number of international students”.

Lord Willetts, the Conservative former universities minister, said: “What happens to almost every universities minister is you start hoping you might get some more public money, then you find you can’t, so what do you do?”

On fee differentiation, he said: “I have had hundreds, if not thousands, of people who want differentiation on fees. I can’t think of two of them who have ever agreed the basis on which differentiation should happen…There is no common view. My view is that’s why we’ve ended up with this system.”

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