A number of English universities are “genuinely very vulnerable”, with the government more likely to allow a “small town” or London institution to fail in a “variable approach” on support, a vice-chancellor has predicted.
Adam Tickell, who leads the University of Sussex, told a seminar hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Advance HE on the subject of the English sector regulation that universities’ financial difficulties would force the Office for Students to change its present “hard and brittle” approach to the sector.
There are “some institutions who are genuinely very vulnerable”, Professor Tickell said.
It would be “a very brave government and a very brave Office for Students” that would allow a university seen as an anchor institution in its city or town to “do anything other than survive”, he said.
But, giving an imagined example of a small university, he said that “you wouldn’t have to be so brave to let the University of Dorchester go under”.
With “a small university in a small town where quite a lot of the population may be hostile to that institution, or an institution in London where we have massive over-provision – that’s not such a brave decision to take”, he added.
Professor Tickell foresaw a “variable approach” and that there would also be “some friendly mergers [between institutions] in the next while”.
He said that “a hard and brittle approach on the part of the regulator will soften. If it doesn’t soften as…institutions get into real difficulty, the regulator will be forced actually to partner [with universities] much more effectively than they are.”
Labour MP Barry Sheerman told the event that the government was “treating the higher education sector as though it is failing – I don’t see the failure”.
Questioning why the Higher Education Funding Council for England was abolished, he asked: “What the hell is the Office for Students?” Mr Sheerman predicted that “it ain’t going to be around long”.
Rachel Wolf, a former Conservative Party and government adviser on education, highlighted the “civil war” within the Tory party between supporters and opponents of university expansion, saying that she was surprised that Theresa May’s government had allowed the Higher Education and Research Act – which created the OfS and was formulated under the pro-expansion Cameron government – to proceed.
Ms Wolf, whose mother, Baroness Wolf, is a member of the panel advising the government’s post-18 education review, said: “The great problem the sector faces is it is simultaneously trying to handle a regulatory structure which was all about market forces and expansion [in] a world where you wanted as many people as possible to go to university…[and] a world in which actually people [in the government] think there should be more technical education and less university.
“We are layering them on top of each other in this extremely uncomfortable combination, which is causing major challenges.”
Highlighting the possibility of a general election, she also told the sector audience: “For all you’re terrified about what this government might do, you should be a lot more terrified about what [Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn might do.”
The Conservative government “still does accept the centrality of universities…does think about research to a very large extent,” Ms Wolf argued.
Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, went through further education rather than higher education.
Ms Wolf continued: “It is not all obvious…that an incoming Labour government is going to care in the least about any of that.
“For the first time, you have a shadow education secretary, or the first time in a long time, whose pivotal, formative experiences weren’t really about university.”
Ms Wolf said that most “politicians are obsessed with university because it was incredibly important to them personally. They [Labour] are not going to care as much.”