‘Things can’t go on like this’ on university funding – UUK chief

Vivienne Stern aims to reach agreement on ‘long-term’ solution that works for universities, students and government

October 24, 2022
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Universities UK will look to build a consensus that “things can’t go on like this” in university funding, and on agreeing long-term solutions, according to its new chief executive.

Vivienne Stern took up the top job at UUK in September, having worked her way up over a 20-year career at the representative and lobbying organisation, starting as a parliamentary officer and most latterly serving as head of UUK International.

UUK is “an organisation that could potentially change the weather for a bunch of institutions that really, really matter”, and she was focused on “making the right choices about priorities”, she told Times Higher Education.

What did UUK mean by its recent call for a “national conversation” on how to fund universities?

“There’s clearly a financial sustainability problem,” said Ms Stern. “It’s not just teaching; it’s teaching and research. It’s not just England; it’s all four [UK] nations. That’s the really big job.”

But making that case to the government cannot start with funding, she added, and instead must “start with what we [universities] are for and why it matters not just to us but to other people that we are able to be successful as institutions”.

The case for support should be based, she argued, in demonstrating universities’ contributions to growth and in “quality and value” – where the Conservative government in Westminster, including the Treasury, has concerns.

Ms Stern said that in the sector “there’s an understanding that things can’t go on like this” on funding, but she questioned whether that was a “shared view” across government.

She continued that funding solutions must be “workable and sustainable for graduates and for students and for government. So, it can’t just be about what we think should happen; it has to be about building some consensus, a) that there’s a problem that can’t be allowed to continue, and b) that there’s a solution that everybody feels could be sustainable in the long term. And I don’t think we’re anywhere near that.”

While UUK has called for the Westminster government to reintroduce maintenance grants in England to address the student cost-of-living crisis, it must also face the fact that the government might consider major public spending cuts after Liz Truss’ unfunded tax cut plans spooked the markets.

Ms Stern said “we have got a huge challenge on our hands making sure that [the drive for savings] doesn’t end up impacting both teaching and research funding”.

She added: “A possible consequence of financial pressures would be [the government] restricting access…If you think about the progress the sector has made in expanding access to groups of society that traditionally didn’t get a look-in, that’s what I would worry about.”

UUK has faced intense criticism from academics striking over cuts to Universities Superannuation Scheme pensions. Ms Stern said the “wretched thing is we risk being in a position” where instead of UUK being seen as an organisation that can help improve working lives “for those people who frankly make up the higher education sector…we get cast as the bad guys because of our role as the USS employer representative”.

The next USS valuation in spring 2023 would be “a very important moment”, and “we’ve got to focus on trying to build a consensus around that valuation”, she added.

In terms of her own education and post-graduation path, Ms Stern studied English at the University of Cambridge, then worked as a receptionist at the Royal Geographical Society, in a summer camp in Italy, as a Whitehall temp and as a research assistant to Labour MP Barry Sheerman, then the chair of the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee.

Her parents were doctors – but her mother having grown up in poverty in Glasgow and her father being a Holocaust survivor gave her “this idea that you needed to be able to turn your hand to a bunch of things, that you needed to be able to go out and get a job tomorrow if the world turned”, a “sense of how fragile everything is”.

She added: “When we talk about access to higher education, I think one of the things a good university education gives you is this ability to adapt, to apply yourself to all sorts of different things.”

When first introduced to universities, the subject of English was often seen as “the Victorian version of a Mickey Mouse subject”, noted Ms Stern.

It had taken her “about a decade” to start to realise the value of her own English degree. “Honestly, it’s the reason that I’ve been relatively successful, professionally, because people regard me as a decent communicator,” said Ms Stern. “And I think that’s because I’ve been surrounded by good writing and good argument.”



Print headline: University funding ‘can’t go on like this’

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Reader's comments (3)

Universities in the UK are happy to behave like for-profit corporations with well-paid CEOs when it suits them (acting as cost minimisers and volume maximisers), but still wish to be treated like public institutions when it does not (uncertain income streams from the state).
"we get cast as the bad guys because of our role as the USS employer representative” You were cast as the "bad guys" because of the things you said and the way that you said them during recent UCU strike action. Spend a bit of time searching the Times Higher for examples and reflect on how you can do better next time to bring long-term consensus to the sector.
The issue with UUK's role in the USS debacle was that, instead of joining with UCU to hold USS to account for their poor performance, the UUK accepted it meekly and attempted to deminish future pensions whilst increasing scheme members' contributions. As for the rest, the key need is to deminish governmental interference in higher education. We have seen how compulsory education has been ruined by underfunding, needless & constant meddling, and the likes of OfSted. This must not be permitted to happen with the university sector.