To outsiders, it seems that the government is taking a piecemeal approach to funding. With the Brexit chaos continuing, this is compounded by short-term economic fixes. However, this week it appears that there may be an underlying and somewhat cryptic ‘masterplan’ for universities that spells ‘marketisation max’. The omens are not looking good for the sustainability of many of our universities and the wellbeing and careers of many staff. The care and the financial support for students in most need look like they will continue to dissipate. Universities will simply continue to ‘compete’ for students who can afford it and will urgently need to diversify their income if it declines further. This will be done by minimising the costs of teaching students with little regard for an increasing number of temporary staff and the instability and chaos that this brings.
Augar has not gone away.
Today the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore announced that the Augar review would be considered in the next spending review. This is set for later in 2020 and the hope is that it will be a full-blown multiyear review. However, the proviso is that a Brexit deal is settled and there is a degree of stability in the economy. Failing that, it would lead to yet another temporary spending round.
To add to the trepidation, also today University and College Union (UCU) launched a major report into the increasing ‘casualisation’ of academic positions with ‘Second class academic citizens: The dehumanising effects of casualisation in higher education’. It reinforces the stark findings of the Wellcome Trust report out last week, ‘What researchers think about the culture they work in’ and extends the concerns across the whole sector. It is a shocking indictment of a situation that has been deteriorating for many years (see TEFS 17th January 2020 ‘Student support and the research environment at universities’).
The negative impact on the mental health of staff has a severe knock-on effect on the provision for students and this is becoming all too evident. Chris Skidmore also acknowledged the UCU report in another response in Parliament today but seemed very uncomfortable. He should be because more cuts will lead to further entrenchment of a severe problem by university managements. In a feeble defence, he voiced his support for the ‘Concordat’ for researchers that was updated in September of last year (‘The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers’). It has been a well-meaning platitude with no teeth since 2008 and the Wellcome and UCU reports simply demonstrate that it is not being honoured. It is effectively meaningless in the current environment.
OfS and further cuts in teaching budgets.
Meanwhile, the Office for Students (OfS) – that is the regulatory body for universities in England – announced on Friday that it was ‘consulting’ universities about further cuts to the teaching budget (Consultation on implementing savings in academic years 2019-20 and 2020-21). This is in the context of gradual cuts since 2012 that aim to replace government grants with
fee income from students (see Figure 1 for the context). A recent House of Commons Library briefing from last December provides an excellent background to the context and trends with ‘Higher education funding in England’. Those in government should be fully aware of what they are doing.
The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, had sent the OfS a very simple letter earlier in January setting out the cuts and his priorities. The headline figure is a saving of £58 million in the financial year 2020‑21. But underneath this is worse news that the cut will be £26 million over the rest of this academic year and £70 million over the coming 2020/21 academic year. There is little chance of it being increased in the coming years. The planners in our universities will be burning the midnight oil. They are getting very little notice.
The cuts over the years have been very deep as they were replaced by less certain income from fees. Research support funds linked to REF have been maintained but this is highly selective with the bulk of the funding going to the Russell Group institutions and then mostly to the pre 92 universities. In England, the research support is selectively targeted by applying the REF rating that currently goes back to 2014. The next REF is in 2021 and further this piles on the uncertainty.
It is becoming obvious that the government is slowly paring grant support for teaching to the bone. The £1.6 billion in student maintenance grants in 2015/16 has already been reduced to zero since they were abolished in 2016/17. There have been many calls to bring them back, but the saving is so large it looks less likely. Interestingly, this figure is close to the £1.3 billion per year that TEFS calculates would be needed to alleviate the part-time job burden of students who work over 10 hours per week (TEFS 29th November 2019 ‘The cost of equalising the HE experience’). This is the cost of giving every student an equal amount of time to study. Setting out with that aim and designing the system around it with a robust professional career structure for staff would be a better way to reboot and start again.