Think local to win national funding argument, universities told

Amid a large number of competing priorities for the next government, focusing on skills and communities is probably the only way for institutions to secure the support they need, conference hears

May 15, 2024
Source: iStock/ gorodenkoff

UK universities must embed themselves in local communities if the sector wants to “win the war for public support” and secure the funding it needs after the next election, it has been warned.

Sam Freedman, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, said a likely Labour government will be well aware of the sector’s financial unsustainability – with English tuition fees having lost their value against inflation, and current government policies perceived to have jeopardised lucrative international recruitment.

“The problem is that it’s number 37 on the list of disasters that Labour is about to walk into and inherit,” he said at a UCL conference. “They’re going to be in a situation where they have to prioritise quite tightly, particularly when it comes to financial issues.”

Mr Freedman, a former senior policy adviser at the Department for Education (DfE), said every department will have a good case for asking the Treasury for help, and within the DfE there will be infighting over whether to spend money on schools or childcare instead of universities.

With no “magic solution” to the funding crisis in the short term, he said it is likely that a new Labour government would have a few choices for the sector, including doing nothing and hoping that no institutions collapse.

Alternatively, Mr Freedman said it could provide some form of financial help – either by linking tuition fees and maintenance loans to inflation, or by using taxpayer money to give a “few hundred million” to institutions in difficulty.

The one-day academic conference, which was jointly organised by the Georgetown Global Economic Challenges Network, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and UCL, also heard why public opinion will make it difficult for a Labour government to take action on tuition fees.

Ed Dorrell, a director at the consultancy Public First, said vice-chancellors calling for an increase in tuition fees are “for the birds” because polling shows there is no appetite for it, but the public is not persuaded by abolishing them either.

“In isolation, getting rid of tuition fees is really popular, but trade it off against just about anything else the British state funds, it loses out,” he added. “The idea that abolishing tuition fees is a popular policy is completely nonsense.”

The contrast between the public’s perception of the finances of universities, which charge over £9,000 per year, and the reality of mass redundancies and job cuts is another challenge the sector faces.

“Voters don’t understand how universities could be skint,” added Mr Dorrell. “They see new buildings being thrown up in their town centres…they don’t see an organisation that looks poor.

“Making an argument for increased funding, either from the taxpayer or from students themselves is really, really hard.”

With further education and skills “wildly popular”, Mr Dorrell said the best way to campaign for greater public investment is to have a stronger relationship with local people.

“If [the sector] wants to win arguments about funding it needs to win the war for public support and the way to do that is to embed yourself in your local community and work in FE and skills,” he added.

“Bringing down the walls between universities and the communities in which they exist potentially changes the narrative.”

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