Students say failing English universities must be rescued

Hepi survey finds student opinion is in direct opposition to government and regulator policy

March 7, 2019
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More than three-quarters of students say that the government should step in to prevent English universities from closing, in direct opposition to government and regulator policy, new research shows.

The survey, conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute, found that 77 per cent of students believe that the government should step in if their university were threatened with closure – a view in conflict with the government’s policy on failing providers. 

In November 2018, Michael Barber, the chair of the Office for Students, said that the new regulator “will not bail out universities or other course providers in financial difficulty”. Chris Skidmore, the universities and science minister, recently told the House of Commons that “the government do not intend to bail out any independent, autonomous institutions, which is what HE providers are”.

Hepi's survey of 1,048 full-time undergraduate students also found that 51 per cent of students believed that they should be given a full fee refund should their university fail. It found that the least popular option in the event of a university failing would be a merger with another university.

“This does not align well with what is widely expected to happen in the event of institutional failure,” says Hepi’s analysis of the survey. “The Office for Students have said they will not provide financial support for universities in trouble and many believe mergers could happen.”

Previous analysis by Times Higher Education has shown how vulnerable a number of English universities are: many are operating with significant deficits, and some of those with the biggest shortfalls have also seen the biggest falls in student recruitment. 

The Hepi research also showed that students are largely unaware of the difficulties institutions are facing and 83 per cent are confident that their own university is in a strong financial position. Most students are not aware of Student Protection Plans – mandatory plans that set out what would happen to students should their provider close – and 93 per cent have not seen their institution’s plan.

However, Hepi found that nearly all students – 97 per cent – would want to know if their university is in financial trouble.

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at Hepi, told Times Higher Education that the contrast between the views of the regulator and of students showed that the debate around the financial status of England’s universities “should be opened up”.

“There’s a huge amount of conversation around what should happen [if a university fails] and what those circumstances are, but actually no one had gone to ask students what they think and whether students understand this issue at all,” she said.

The discussion therefore needs to be broadened, because there is not yet a clear direction that the government should take on this issue, Ms Hewitt continued. “There is the argument that actually students want to know whether universities are in financial difficulties so we should tell them, but there’s also the counter-argument: if we do tell them, what will the consequences be for those universities who are going through financial difficulties?” she said.

The report backs up the idea that universities in financial difficulties would be impacted if their position were made public: 84 per cent of students polled said they would have been less likely to have applied to their university if they had known it was in financial difficulty.


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Reader's comments (4)

Isn't it fraud to know which universities are in financial trouble and not let its "shareholders" the students, know about their financial position?
The entire student fee-based ponzi scheme and beggar-thy-neighbour edifice of UK HE is a fraud. Students should not only know about the dire financial position of an institution but also the root causes of reckless financial overleveraging and misallocation of resources (away from the core purpose of teaching and research). They should learn that this development is due to "market pressures" and "competition for students" among other things; the blame for which can be squarely laid down at the door of UK governments and their policies first and foremost.
Typical isn't it that an organisation called the 'Office for Students' doesn't actually intend to do what students want it to! This government - and not just them, the rot has been setting in for a long time - puts self-interest and blind adherence to ideology before actually working to the benefit of the very people they are employed to serve.
I would add that potential students should have access to relevant data on the financial health of any HEI they intend to apply to, because they are committing themselves to 3 or more years of, eventually, paying hefty fees and expecting a certain type of qualification in return. Student protection plans are useful, but I guess that often student A wants to graduate from HEI B not HEI C. Those with long memories will remember the somewhat chaotic situation in the hard sciences under the UGC where staff and students at HEI C were suddenly forced to move to HEI D or stay with a dumbed down quality in C. Some wanted to stay because they had strong personal connections at C which would be put at risk if they moved to D. This was the case in my direct experience with Stirling chemistry which was split between St Andrews and Heriot-Watt. Some Stirling students insisted on staying there, serviced by staff commuting from the other institutions. I was handed this rather difficult situation to manage from the administration viewpoint, meeting angry and/or upset students and their parents in the process. It was temporary but rather stressful for all concerned, although the chemistry staff were wholly professional and remarkably supportive. So the moral of the story is that students on application should be guaranteed that their course will be delivered at the HEI they apply to. This becomes complicated where large numbers apply through clearing. These issues should be addressed by UUK, UCAS, OfS, QAA, OIAHE and any other organisation I forgot.