Universities need ‘pupil premium’ to fix Covid fallout, says v-c

Sussex chief challenges ‘uninspected belief’ that additional cash for student learning – including grants for Covid-hit generation – is politically unthinkable

October 2, 2023
Hand drawn rainbow with thank you note to NHS displayed on fence
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UK universities should be paid a “Covid generation student premium” to help fund catch-up activities for undergraduates whose school education was blighted by the pandemic, a vice-chancellor has argued.

The proposal by Sasha Roseneil, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, is one of several ideas put forward in a new collection of essays by university leaders published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) on 2 October.

Addressing the “serious financial difficulty” faced by many institutions from the failure of tuition fees to keep pace with inflation, Professor Roseneil suggests seven ways in which “university funding could be increased without increasing student fees” – a policy, she argues, that would command public support if targeted correctly.

Her proposed “Covid generation student premium” would be paid for every UK undergraduate to provide “additional funding to make good the lost learning opportunities of lockdown”, focused on extra resources for training in academic skills and professional development. The per-student grant would also help to “embed the best changes in pedagogy and educational technologies that have emerged from the pandemic”, she says of the “equivalent of the pupil premium for undergraduates”, which would be higher for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Other proposals include a “mental health and well-being support fund” to cover extra counselling and therapy resources offered to students and a dedicated income stream to help universities fix decaying infrastructure, which is described as a “science superpower and crucible for creativity” grant.

Such increased state support for higher education could win public support because higher education is still regarded as public good that enriches society, despite claims that benefits fall mainly to graduates and therefore the cost of undergraduate degrees should fall on students, explains Professor Roseneil.

“There is political paralysis on university funding almost exclusively because of the uninspected belief that universities can only be funded through student fees,” she writes, adding that “a high-quality university sector is a public good that benefits young people and the country as a whole, and so it should command greater public investment”.

In addition, Professor Roseneil also proposes greater public investment in student housing to help reduce rents – with university-run accommodation outside London now consuming 68 per cent of the maximum maintenance loan available on average – and a “progressive graduate tax” based on the principle that “higher education is a public good that should be paid for through general taxation”.

The Hepi publication also includes “manifestos” from Adam Tickell, the University of Birmingham’s vice-chancellor, who calls for action to address the £4.2 billion deficit that UK universities incur annually from the underfunding of research, and from Sir Chris Husbands, the outgoing vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, who advocates more flexible student funding to encourage part-time learning.

The ideas are designed to raise the profile of higher education as political parties began to formulate manifestos ahead of a general election that is due to happen next year, said Lucy Haire, director of partnerships at Hepi.

“It’s not easy for politicians to write a manifesto for higher education, especially when there are so many competing priorities for them to think about and on which to spend precious public money,” she said, adding that the ideas from “highly experienced vice-chancellors leading very different sorts of institutions” could “lead to further debate and discussion in the run-up to the general election”.


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