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.