A collective bargain

As financial pressure takes its toll, the Oxford vice-chancellor’s clarity and commitment to the health of the whole sector show a way forward

July 14, 2023
Bad and molden fruits in a bowl is described in the article
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Do countries have a single higher education sector, or several?

In the US, with its 4,000 institutions, the answer is probably the latter – it does not make sense to lump Ivy League oranges with community college apples as if they are one and the same.

The UK, by contrast, has just 150 or so higher education institutions, which, if not exactly constituting a bunch of identical bananas, do at least make up a cohesive sector, bound together by a collective approach on most issues.

But are cracks appearing in the fruit bowl?

Take, for example, the splits emerging on the issue of collective pay bargaining, with Queen’s University Belfast the latest to strike a local deal.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association promptly suspended QUB, but QUB’s response was equally forthright (essentially, we don’t care, it was the right thing to do).

Such splits reflect the very different financial situations within UK higher education.

We know the causes of this stratification: inflation is running riot, revenue from frozen tuition fees is eroding, the ability to recruit internationally is uneven and the same is true on the domestic front – data from Ucas last week showed that the research elite took a record share of applications.

What to do about it is a trickier question.

Speaking at an event in Westminster last week, Lord Willetts, who established the current funding system, argued that, a decade on, its longevity is a mark of success.

“Given the amount of anxiety that there is in so many areas that I am involved in about policy churn and instability, I always think it’s rather striking that in higher education the big problem is that it’s frozen, and that people wish there was a mechanism for at least raising fees in line with inflation – an amendment that Jo Johnson and I have been tabling to the Lifelong Learning Bill,” he said.

Whatever the “imperfections” of the funding system, he argued, the English sector had benefited from a “stable and longlasting settlement for the model of funding higher education”.

The trouble is that, as Lord Johnson observed in another Westminster debate, the ongoing fee freeze is “systematically defunding our universities” and could lead to them “falling over one by one”.

The former universities ministers may be combining forces to try to secure uprating by inflation, but others warn that it would be a mistake to bank on any thawing of the tuition fee freeze.

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, told us that in his view fee increases will continue to be “politically toxic”, and that “the best bets for driving any additional resource are more likely to be via new sources of funding and tied to specific activities”.

These questions were also on the mind of the new University of Oxford vice-chancellor, Irene Tracey, when she spoke at the Times Higher Education Europe Universities Summit in Warsaw.

She described again her “surprise” at the “financial constraints that the higher education system is under” and, in a warning that government might actually heed, said that “if you don’t have a healthy academic sector, you’re not going to have the innovation that is going to be the growth engine for our country”.

Professor Tracey has already made clear that she intends to advocate not just for Oxford but for the whole of UK higher education, and did so again.

Sustainable funding and a healthy innovation ecosystem, she said, “go hand in hand, and that is something we are going to have to address in our country – it is going to be a big effort, requiring a challenging set of conversations and deep thinking about size, shape and what is a viable financial model, [one that] makes sure we aren’t suffocating the goose that lays the golden egg.

“I am very eager to use my role and tenure to support the broad sector in championing and rethinking how we are going to set up the British higher education system…because, particularly as we now think about what our identity is as a nation, and as we start to feel the impact of Brexit, it is my firm belief that our great universities have to be at the table helping to think about what it is and how it is that we’re going to take the country forward.”

She is right, and while there are no easy or glib solutions, strong and inclusive leadership from clear communicators such as Professor Tracey might just be the start of a new sort of conversation – not just about universities and how to fund them, but what sort of country Britain wants to be.


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