Sector leaders fear arts ‘disaster’ if fee cut means funding cut

Peers hear debate about whether English universities might become more reliant on international students if fee cut recommended by Augar review is implemented without replacement funding

June 4, 2019
Michael Arthur

A university leader has warned of a “disaster” for the arts and humanities if tuition fees in England are cut to £7,500 and the government does not provide increased public funding to make up the difference.

Michael Arthur, president of UCL, told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that a number of expert predictions suggested that it was “unlikely” that the Treasury would top up average per-student funding to the current level of £9,250 if the fee cap recommended by the Augar review of post-18 education was implemented.

Professor Arthur warned that this would have a significant impact on his institution.

“There’s lots of doubt about whether or not a future government, and in particular the Treasury, will play ball…For UCL, that cut [to £7,500, without replacement funding] equates to £40 million per year,” he said.

Suggestions made in the report that universities could “redistribute government funding to top up different subjects to a degree” raised another red flag, Professor Arthur said.

“At this point we are quite worried, and we’re very worried about what happens to arts and humanities and social sciences funding,” he told peers. “If the total amount of money coming to UCL is the same and if I have the flexibility…then of course there could be some cross-subsidisation [between arts and sciences]. To some extent that already happens because there is inadequate funding of clinical science.

“But I would not wish to see any impact on arts, humanities, social sciences. It would be a disaster for the country because we need that research and teaching capability if we are to be the successful country that we want to be.”

Vice-chancellors have suggested that some English universities may cut back on domestic recruitment and up their enrolment of more lucrative international learners in order to balance the books.

But Professor Arthur said he would “start to worry” if the proportion of UCL students who are from outside the UK rose any higher.

“We are a British university and we have a responsibility to the country – we are an engine for the future of the UK,” he said. “International students who come up have a great time and get a very high-quality experience. [Students] enjoy the diversity [and] it’s highly creative. However, if you stretch it too far I think it can backfire on you.”

About 15 per cent of UCL’s student population come from other EU countries and around 30 per cent are from outside the EU.

Professor Arthur said that the university was doing “a lot of work to try and diversify our international market so we are not overly reliant on China”. However, last year, UCL saw a 36 per cent increase in “high-quality” applications from the country.

“Between 10 and 15 per cent come from China [this year] and that’s a significant amount of income,” he said. “One has to worry that at some point that might be a problem.”

In the same hearing, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, former vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge and now an emeritus professor, said his own institution could expect to lose £10 million each year if the tuition fee cut was not compensated for. This was, he said, a cause of “heightened uncertainty”.

Sir Leszek said that he believed that it was “morally wrong to use international student fees as cross-subsidy for lost income from home students”.

And there were other aspects of the review the sector should be wary of, Sir Leszek said. “I do not like the suggestion that there’s going to be some additional formal register of which courses and which universities’ teaching [is reputable] and scrutiny by course,” he told committee members.

“There was a debate at the time the Higher Education and Research Bill [2017] was coming in about the idea that courses that were substandard could be closed down by department.

“I’m certainly going to be watching very hard to make sure this isn’t getting the same effect by the back door. If the university sector does not get this money back, it will cause problems and there’s no point in pretending it won’t.”

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