Decision time

A decade dominated first by austerity and then by Brexit has brought UK higher education to a tipping point as the election looms

December 5, 2019
Strike placard
Source: Eleanor Bentall

December is meant to be a month that gently winds down to the holiday period.

Not this year for UK higher education.

Over the past 10 days, internal divisions over pay, pensions and working conditions have reached boiling point once again with widespread industrial action.

Next week, the country faces a day of reckoning in a general election with deep ramifications for universities.

And in four weeks’ time, the curtain comes down on a decade dominated first by austerity, then by Brexit and that has fundamentally reshaped higher education.

Universities arguably did well during those austerity years, when most other parts of the economy were contracting. The introduction of £9,000 fees, shifting funding from the state to the individual, preserved the unit of resource, and facilitated the abolition of the student numbers cap.

But there was a price to pay – and for many working in universities, marketisation has been too high a price. This week’s strikes have not just been about pensions but wider changes to institutional culture, workloads and casualisation.

It is also arguable that this period, in which universities were cast as cosseted at a time of constraint, was the foundation for the negative narrative that built in subsequent years.

This perception, aided and abetted by such flare-ups as the vice-chancellors’ pay scandal, has stuck – yet it masks the reality that for many universities, finances are now exceptionally tight.

Those who have seen student numbers squeezed by the market competition, or who may not have access to international students, are often on a financial knife-edge.

And they now have a market regulator reminding them that if they go bust, then so be it.

The resolve of the Office for Students, or more realistically the government of the day, to maintain that hard line may yet be tested.

If, as the polls suggest is likely, a Conservative government is returned next week, it remains entirely possible that proposals to cut the fee cap are revived. Speaking at our THE Live event in London last week, Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton, warned that this would be “catastrophic”, adding that the idea that universities can just “deal with it” was “asinine”.

The austerity years also laid the foundations for deep economic and social divisions in the country, which, as we now know, paved the road to the fateful Brexit vote.

This has been a period in which political allegiances have shifted to a focus on identity, and the graduate/non-graduate divide has emerged as an important one.

After a decade of expansion in participation, many believe that the coming parliament will see a return to some sort of student number controls, whoever wins.

At THE Live, Baroness Wolf, professor of public sector management and a member of the Augar review panel, warned that governments backing expansion thought that they were buying growth, but productivity levels cast doubt on this assumption. The main effect of increased participation had been to expand the number of jobs considered graduate-entry, rather than the skills required.

As we note in our election analysis this week, some of these ideas seem to be leaned on in the Conservative Party manifesto, co-authored by Rachel Wolf, who as well as being a former adviser to Boris Johnson is the daughter of Baroness Wolf.

The prospect of wholesale change, albeit of a different sort, is even more likely were Labour to win – with its commitment to end what it calls the “failed free market experiment” in higher education.

So a university model and funding system that had appeared settled has cracks appearing from government, from a divided public and from an unsettled academic workforce.

Underpinning all of this seems to be a breakdown in trust.

This, perhaps, was the most striking thread running through the debates at THE Live last week.

We heard from vice-chancellors and heads of research who simply did not believe what politicians are promising, for example about big increases in research funding in the next Parliament.

We heard from scholars such as Sarah Churchwell, chair of public understanding of the humanities at the School of Advanced Study, who warned that junior academics on precarious contracts felt senior managers had “pulled the ladder up” after them.

And we heard from politicians, such as Lord Willetts, who warned about the grave danger of any continued erosion of public trust in universities.

If the negative narrative around higher education continues, he said, then it will encourage (or give licence to) politicians to jump on the bandwagon in the next Parliament.

As our election analysis this week puts it, the UK’s universities find themselves at the centre of a “battle of ideas”, and both agendas, Labour and Tory, promise to bring transformation.

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