Vice-chancellors who publicly criticised Labour for considering a £6,000 tuition fee policy have been attacked as “unbelievably stupid” by a party source and warned that they could now face political pressure over their salaries.
A source close to Liam Byrne, the shadow universities, science and skills minister, told Times Higher Education that vice-chancellors on the Universities UK board had compromised their ability to influence Labour thinking “to an extraordinary extent”.
Meanwhile other vice-chancellors have criticised UUK’s intervention, which came in the form of a letter to The Times, used by the newspaper as a front-page story on 2 February.
The Times letter was signed by the 20 English members of the UUK board, led by Sir Christopher Snowden, the organisation’s president and the University of Surrey vice-chancellor. The signatories said that it was “implausible” that any government would be able to bridge the funding gap created by cutting fees to £6,000 and that it “risks the quality of education for all”.
Mr Byrne met UUK leaders two days before the 30 January board meeting at which they decided to send their letter, and gave them an update on discussions within Labour on its funding policy, on which an announcement is expected later this month. He “explicitly advised UUK that now was an especially unwise time for any destabilising intervention”, the Labour source said.
The source continued that “Labour’s Treasury team has been looking with raised eyebrows at the 8 per cent increase in [some] vice-chancellors’ pay” and noting that “public spending has risen” at universities.
Mr Byrne had been “working very hard to deliver the best deal for universities against that very difficult backdrop, was making great progress and has now been comprehensively undermined by vice-chancellors’ somewhat short-sighted intervention. For a supposedly sophisticated group of lobbyists, this was unbelievably stupid,” the source continued.
With Labour’s shadow Treasury team apparently keen to look at vice-chancellors’ pay and the University and College Union urging the party to act on the issue, Mr Byrne is said to feel that he is now in a weaker position to argue against any Labour intervention on the subject.
As it was a “very sensitive period in Labour’s preparations for government”, it seemed “utterly bizarre that vice-chancellors would want to compromise, to such an extraordinary extent, their ability to influence Byrne’s thinking”, the source said.
Bill Rammell, the University of Bedfordshire vice-chancellor and former Labour minister, who has himself previously criticised the party for considering a £6,000 fee policy, said that the “manner” of the UUK board’s intervention, “undertaken without discussion with members, risks appearing one-sided and bluntly risks the university sector losing influence with the Labour Party in the run-up to the most open general election I can recall”.
Peter Strike, the University of Cumbria vice-chancellor, said that it was “reasonable to say that the UUK letter does not properly represent the position we would take on a fee reduction to £6K. Clearly, for students, such a reduction would be attractive and desirable.”
But Sir Christopher said: “It is inconceivable to think that Universities UK would remain silent on such an important matter, given the potential risks.”
He added that UUK “has a constructive relationship with all the major political parties, including the Labour Party” and that the letter “reflected strong and consistent views expressed by a large number of members” over months.