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Bailout for research universities: Student support on hold

An announcement to bail out research-intensive universities by the government today is welcome news. Particularly for those researchers on fixed-term contracts who will see lost time made up through extensions. The package acknowledges openly that fees for international students have cross-subsidised research and this gap will be plugged through loans. Missing is a plan for teaching-intensive universities and addressing their shortfall in international students. The idea of further support for students is left in the ‘to do’ tray for now. It shows that elite universities are the priority and that others and the many struggling students are of lesser importance. The idea that universities might move the academic year start to January also emerged in the Guardian. Not because of COVID-19, but to accommodate a move to university entry after the exam results are out in the summer. This would help less advantaged students make better choices based upon actual and not predicted results. However, there may be other objectives in play. It is time that students were put first. 

The priority the government has placed on protecting research-intensive universities emerged in a comprehensive bailout package announced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) today, ‘Support for university research and innovation during coronavirus (COVID-19)’. The decision to reveal this on a Saturday is puzzling – but I guess for all of us the days are merging into one amorphous time-blob. 

There are two ‘support packages’ presented in a little more detail in ‘University research support package: explanatory notes’. Both are designed to cushion the decline in fee-paying international students and to compensate for a loss of research time. They acknowledge the reality that income from international students has been cross-subsidising research for some time. Also, that early-stage researchers on fixed-term research contracts are vulnerable and urgently need their contracts to be extended to make up for the precious lost time. The package of £280 million is to “fund extensions to grants, allowing them to continue developing ambitious and innovative research projects, funded through UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) and the National Academies, including supporting researchers’ salaries and other research costs like laboratory equipment and fieldwork.” This will be hugely welcomed by many researchers. However, there are still questions remaining for research funded through other means. The hope is that all universities involved will recognise the need to treat all its researchers equally in granting extensions to contracts. 

Most international students paying fees have tended to be attracted to the more elite research-intensive institutions. This means that they, in turn, became more vulnerable in the COVID-19 crisis (see TEFS 22nd May 2020 ‘How precarious are universities in the UK?). To offset the losses, the government is offering “grants and long-term, low interest loans covering up to 80% of their income losses caused by an expected decline in international students, ensuring that their crucial research can continue”. This overtly acknowledges that there is a cross-subsidy of research. However, the new support appears to be only available to those “research-active universities” with international students. 

Questions remain. 

Despite a list of obvious questions, it seems some are not fully addressed. There are restrictions with “Support is also capped at the level of an institution’s non-publicly funded research to ensure that funds are being directed towards universities conducting research”. This leaves many universities out in the cold despite them having lost a considerable amount of income from international students. 

There are no details on the terms of the loans – except to say that they may be around ten years at low interest. Bear in mind that institutions with few reserves and little net liquidity may find they are unable to take on such debt at this time. 

A dim light in the distance for students. 

Despite the main priority of research, the question of how to support “teaching intensive institutions and the impact on regional economies” is fortunately addressed, but only in vague terms. This is written as: 

“The Department for Education (DfE) Restructuring Regime will look to support teaching intensive institutions where there is a case to do so and where intervention is possible and appropriate. The Government recognises the important role that higher education providers make to regional and local economies through the provision of high-quality courses aligned with local, regional and national economic and societal requirements. This will be within scope of the decision making process for intervention. Further detail on the ‘Restructuring Regime’ will be announced in due course”. 

So far the only ‘Restructuring Regime’ that has been announced to date was made back on the 4th May with ‘Government support package for universities and students’. This does not address direct support for students and focuses on fees being released to universities in advance. A bit like a payday loan.

It must be expected that more support for students will emerge in time. However, time is running out. There should be more emphasis on supporting students in order to get funding into universities. The fact that many students have accepted offers to go to university (see TEFS 26th June 2020 ‘Students accept offers they cannot refuse’) is tending to foster a false sense of security. When they turn up in the Autumn, even more will be suffering a financial shortfall. There is an urgent need to get a task force on student support off the ground to address the inevitable. 

Alarming news about restructuring the sector. 

A Guardian ‘exclusive’ yesterday ‘Ministers may move university applications to after A-level results’ revealed the news about a research bailout. This was embedded in a story that there were other plans afoot in the for the higher education sector. It is revealed that “a strategy paper is being drawn up to include the push towards post-qualification admissions and other proposals aimed at improving the prospects of disadvantaged applicants”. Post qualification admissions would remove the bias in predicting grades of disadvantaged students who then go onto getting higher grades. It would improve the chances of many of these less advantaged students. However, a move to a January start may be here sooner with the second wave of COVID-19. This would cause universities and make a late start inevitable. The government must plan for this prospect in any case. The result would be all university courses put back by at least one term, and not just first-year entry. This means a realignment of the academic year would have to fall into place from then on. The move might help less advantaged students, but this is possibly not the main reason. Universities would find themselves looking at a third semester over the summer and two-year degrees. It might suit the DfE to consider this as a major gain. 

Whatever the motives and moves made, it surely must be accepted that students are the main priority at all times.

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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