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University madness and merger mania: Students beware the cliff edge

Most observers are predicting a disaster within months for Higher Education in the UK if further action is not taken. The government has held its second research task force meeting this week and its priority seems to be ahead of supporting students. This is taking the wrong approach that helps a minority of universities with higher research profiles. But where is the task force for students? Meanwhile, the Office for Students is hesitant in its advice to students, and to parliament, with the government lacking the political will to prioritise students. The old idea of forcing universities to merge as some approach insolvency has emerged. These are in effect ‘takeovers’ that will create further chaos that stalls genuine helpful actions. Personal experience of institutions that merged in the past showed student support and education fall well down the priority list of concerns. It is time for all involved to work together to support students as the top priority. The government has no other choice but to prop up our universities. The alternative is tens of thousands of staff and students sitting at home on benefits while there is an important job to be done.

The alliteration in the title was too tempting to use to describe the situation that our universities are in danger of falling into. Students will need to consider many factors affecting their education as they stand near to the cliff edge of their chosen university failing. Meanwhile, the emphasis on research by the government is hard to understand as the second meeting of the research task force took place this week. The simple fact is that this conversation affects mostly the Russell group universities and, to a lesser extent, the pre-92 institutions. TEFS has already asked the question, where is the task force for students? They are the key to solving the crisis surely. But it is now evident that students are of lesser importance. They are being encouraged to attend courses that are likely to be offered online later this year but still pay full fees. UCAS states that they will have to reply to offers by 18th June. Yet most will not know how their choice of university will be handling teaching by that date. This is despite the Office for Students (OfS) as regulator demanding that this is made clear. Worse still, they may be calculating their own financial position and wondering what support will be available. Many universities have suddenly found more call on their hardship funds since the lockdown started in March. However, this is only the start and it is the tip of a greater disadvantage iceberg drifting into their path. Increasing unemployment will affect many families and their ability to support their student children who will find part-time jobs are scarce. In response, the OfS seems to be wilting in the heat as it fails to take decisive control. 

Office for Students or for universities?

The evidence the OfS offered to the Education Select Committee back on the 18th May 2020 is a fine example of evasion and contradiction. It seems that they want ‘trust-based regulation’ whatever that means. This might work in good times, but in a crisis, it is just not good enough. The full session is available on video (Education Committee ‘Impact of COVID-19 on Education:Higher Education) with the COE of OfS, Nichola Dandridge and the OfS chair, Michael Barber being interrogated from 10.35am. But be ready to watch paint dry. The emphasis stated at the start by the chair, Robert Halfon, is on students. However, this might have eluded those representing the OfS. The failure to answer a simple question, put many times by Halfon on what the OfS had gathered about universities help for students during the lockdown, emphasised the loss of grip by the OfS. Analysis by Jim Dickinson at Wonke offers a good summary with ‘Outcomes based regulation doesn’t work in a pandemic. Or a select committee’

Tha incomplete performance was followed this week by a Q and A session on the Student Room. The session is reported, and available on video to those who register, at ‘TSR Answers: How will Covid-19 affect your university experience? It is like watching the second coat of paint dry. A lack of decisive answers from the OfS and universities involved was alarming. In answer to the obvious question “If a lot of students defer this year, will it be harder to get a place in 2021?” came the answer from Nicola Dandridge “don’t try and anticipate too much, because it’s too uncertain”. I am not sure how many students followed The Student Room on the day but their site claims “75% of UK students aged 14-24 visit us” with over 10 million seeing the site per month. The OfS should have been better prepared. 

Other factors that students should be mindful of.

TEFS has looked at some of the pressures on universities that would give an indication of how solvent they are. This does not make for encouraging reading. Many are going to come under immense pressure with reserves dwindling fast (See TEFS 22nd May 2020 ‘How precarious are universities in the UK’).

Nicola Dandridge told the Education Select Committee on the 18th of May that “It’s actually critical …that we’re not in a situation where students find at the university college they were planning to go to is in real financial difficulties. So this is the number one priority for us”. This seemed to be more important than her earlier assertion that “The important thing here is absolute clarity to students so they know what they’re getting in advance of accepting offers.” She is probably right on the second attempt as there is little point attending a university that promptly goes bust in the first year. However, she offers no solution about how the OfS will proceed in this scenario. 

Of course, prior to insolvency, universities will be cutting costs as fast as possible. The law dictates that they must announce redundancies a least 90 days in advance and this is already happening. The universities planning for REF2021, and the QR funding that comes with success, will be reluctant to let productive researchers go. In the past they have been keener to lose staff who concentrate on teaching and replace them with staff on short-term contracts. This dubious practice will probably accelerate at the cost of student education. They will be faced with overworked and inexperienced staff trying to cope with online methods. On a positive note, other universities not in the research front rank will seek to strengthen their teaching provision and attract students who may decide to stay nearer home at this time. 

The insolvency chain reaction.

If universities become insolvent, the Government will be faced with valuable staff sitting at home on benefits (furlough or otherwise) doing nothing. Meanwhile, thousands of students will be asking for their money back and some compensation. The logjam will overwhelm the country at an alarming rate. It is notable that the main union, University and College Union (UCU) are still conducting industrial action on pay, working conditions and the USS (University Superannuation Scheme) pension fund that is in trouble. But, in the confusion, UCU is still unsure of its position and might re-ballot members at the end of June. They should be more mindful to support their members better and should look towards maintaining solvent employers as the top priority. They must work with the universities on this task and set some grievances aside for now. The USS pension scheme is massive and is run as a multi-employer fund called a master trust scheme run by a board. If employers lose staff or fail due to insolvency, the USS pension contributions will shift to the remaining employers and put further pressure on them. Their dwindling numbers could, in turn, precipitate a chain reaction of insolvency. 

Merger mania.

Is it time the to dust off the well-worn notion of merging universities to cut costs? This ‘solution’ has been around for a long time. TEFS has been looking at the consequences for students if this happened across the sector. But, unless there is a valid educational reason to do this, it never works out well. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) beat TEFS to the draw this week with a very timely and useful overview ‘Are we on the cusp of a wave of university mergers?’. Citing an earlier HEPI report from 2003, ‘Handling Merger Proposals’ and ‘The Many Mergers of English Higher Education’ in 2017 by Mike Ratcliffe, Registrar at Nottingham Trent University, it is rightly observed that “It is easy to forget how many mergers have happened in the past”.

Indeed, it is very easy. Two mergers and the fallout from them are conspicuously missing from each offering. These are the merger of the New University of Ulster (NUU) and the Ulster Polytechnic (UP) in 1984 and the ‘take over’ of the failed University College Cardiff by the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST) in 1988. 

My direct experience in these institutions cemented in my mind the idea that students are too often left out of the machinations. Both mergers were precipitated by the savage cuts to universities in the early 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s government. The consequences live on in our institutions today. A review of higher education in Northern Ireland (The Future of Higher Education in Northern Ireland. Report of the Higher Education Review Group for Northern Ireland *see note on the reference below) led by Henry Chilver, concluded in 1982 that NUU and UP should merge. The conflicts in Northern Ireland had led to both Queens University Belfast and NUU failing to meet their student number targets. However, there were many reports at the time that Chilver had reached a different conclusion but was forced to backtrack by the conservative government. It is worth noting that there was ‘direct rule’ of Northern Ireland from Westminster at the time and the conflict was at a very high level. It should also cross the minds of any government that it takes intricate legislation for each case to manage a merger. See ‘The University of Ulster (Northern Ireland) Order 1984’.

Personal experience.

I know much of this because I was a young lecturer at Queens University Belfast at the time. The merger led to a period of intense infighting and, quite frankly, treachery between the newly named University of Ulster and Queen’s University Belfast. By 1987, the Queens’ University was also heading for insolvency. There were many ‘voluntary’ redundancies forced upon staff that were targeted. UU management had acceded to losing key subjects, such as Physics, and staff had been transferred to Queens along with some resources. But UU expected to acquire all of Biosciences and Environmental Sciences in return. This did not happen, and in 1986 the management at Queens offered all Biology staff two years pay to leave immediately and effectively collapse Biosciences at Queens. There was no concern about what would happen to the students at the time. Even less concern for the workload of the staff left behind.

We were called in one at a time and I was subjected to aggressive shouting by a senior member of management whilst the head of human resources, who I knew well, sat quietly and actually wept. They did not know that I had a well-paid job offer in industry but could not declare this. My big mistake was to try to defend students and their education. Instead, the incident strengthened my resolve to stay put and soldier on. By the time the new Vice-Chancellor, Gordan Beverage, arrived a few months later, it was too late. All the microbiology technical staff were leaving for other jobs with two years pay and, by Easter of 1987, I was left to close a course of almost 200 hundred students. The head of department had lost the plot, but Beverage, to his credit, met with me and we arranged for technical staff to stay till August to complete the work. As an aside, the same head of department tried to take credit and informed me and other staff of his success in retaining technical staff, something he had singularly failed to do. Nevertheless, the fallout from this mess lasted for many years and the staff left behind endured a massive workload. The lesson is clear, we should never forget to put students first in every plan.

The University of Ulster failed to accept their position on Biosciences and pressed on with their campaign. This precipitated major damage to students that were of lower priority. They forced a review of the relationship between the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture and Queen’s. This close link had been the main reason that Biosciences had been retained at Queens. The UU campaign led to The Agriculture (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 and a split of agriculture teaching from government research activities in the faculty. The Queen’s case made for retaining teaching was not consulted on and remained secret. However, I was sent a leaked copy when it was submitted, something my head of school in Biosciences had never seen. I concluded that the Queen’s case was a poor one and designed to fail. The UU case was more open, expansive, and overtly the first part of a bid to take control of all Biosciences and Environmental Sciences in Northern Ireland. They also sought to get control of the Queen’s University Environmental Science and Technology (QUESTOR) Centre; something they failed to mention in their case whilst simultaneously undermining our efforts. I was chair of its research committee and by then it was a large and very successful multidisciplinary research venture working with many major industries worldwide. But Queens won the battle and set up food science and nutrition courses while the extensive teaching laboratories used prior to that were lying vacant at Department of Agriculture premises that they now wholly owned. One consolation was that the staff at Queen’s worked very hard and made the courses a success. But this was down to them and not the planning. By failing to put students first, a large step in provision had been taken backwards.

I also took a keen interest in the financial tribulations in Cardiff during the 1980s. I had been a PhD student in UWIST from 1977 to 1980 and endured the tight financial control exerted by the principle (as it was then a constituent college in the University of Wales) Aubrey Trotman-Dickenson. Indeed, I knew him as I lived for some of my first year in student accommodation in the gatehouse of his university accommodation at Radyr Chain. He was a keen gardener and very helpful to me when acquiring a defined soil from a neighbouring farm for my microbial biochemistry experiments. The Radyr type soil later became a key EU representative soil for such studies in 1999 (EUROSOILS II Laboratory Reference Materials for Soil-related Studies). With our laboratories struggling on few resources, we became aware of excess and profligacy in laboratories run by our near neighbours at University College Cardiff. Hearing that their luck had run out in 1987 came as little surprise. It was easy to predict that Trotman-Dickinson would take control and his tight financial regime took hold. This also happened at Queen’s University at the same time and I grew to appreciate the hard lessons I had learned during my PhD. 

There is only one way forward.

The only solution, in the end, is to prop up all universities one way or another. The alternative is chaos and a disaster for the economy long into the future. The best way to do this overall is to support students financially and ensure they continue to attend university. This will have the broadest effect. After all, they bring their fees to the table. Some subsidy to offset the loss of fees from international students may only be needed in the short term and it is not beyond the wit of government to arrange this. Research and increasing QR payments should be of lesser importance at this point. Indeed, the whole system of REF21 should be suspended at once and QR should be reviewed at a later date. It is not the main danger at this point. Instead, universities should concentrate fully on how to provide for students arriving later this year. The OfS should not take this on trust, they must be proactive and disseminate best practice urgently. A task group, or working group on student support, should have been set up by now and not relegated behind research. This should include all parties with an interest. All those involved must work better together in solving the problem across every jurisdiction in the UK. This includes university representation through Universities UK, unions such as UCU, the national union of students and other government departments, such as the Department for Education in England, and the OfS. The alternative is a domino effect collapsing the whole system.

*NOTE 'CHILVER REPORT (1982). The Future of Higher Education in Northern Ireland. Report of the Higher Education Review Group for Northern Ireland'. Belfast: HMSO. This is not available online but can be accessed via the National Archives. A summary is available in Hansard from the time ‘Chilver report Hansard final report 23rd March 1982’.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University


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