How should universities position themselves in the forthcoming election?

Smita Jamdar (she/her)

Partner and Head of Education, Shakespeare Martineau

It is difficult to recall a previous election which higher education went into with such a potentially toxic combination of being in desperate need of investment at a time of acute pressure on public finances, and simultaneously at risk of haemorrhaging the support and goodwill it needs to secure it. 

It is hardly news that the current government and its most ardent supporters are no fans of the sector. Viewed by the Treasury as too expensive with insufficient return on investment, DfE as made up of insufficiently compliant big schools, DSIT as intolerably woke, and the Home Office as little more than an unnecessarily high contributor to the immigration figures, it is unlikely that the Conservative manifesto is going to include much that is positive.

The Labour party is perhaps instinctively more pro-university and there have been modestly encouraging noises about a return to a more positive relationship with both government and regulator, but there is little detail yet and higher education will have to take its place among an alarmingly long list of priorities facing a new government. Alongside the political uncertainty, a steady stream of adverse stories in the press and an increasing number of people with direct experience of the travails of students under the current system means that electoral support for more investment may also be wanting.  The prospects therefore of a quick and positive fix to the sector’s challenges seem remote. 

This is unfortunate given how long that list of challenges is, so much so that it is only possible to pick out one or two in this article.

It is of course well known that universities now lose money on their core activities of Home undergraduate tuition and research, which by any definition is not a sustainable business model. Their ability to raise additional funding through recruiting international students is also increasingly being constrained, as these students are seen as contributing to net migration and also as taking places from domestic applicants. Both are questionable assertions, but nevertheless have taken hold. 

Attempts to reduce the costs of delivery by increasing “class” sizes, reducing staff headcount or by increasing the amount of on-line delivery have been met with hostility and suspicion about what it means in terms of quality, standards and the student experience, and the last requires a potentially significant amount of investment anyway. 

Embracing new forms of delivery, such as degree apprenticeships or modular courses funded through the new lifelong learning courses requires ease of adoption, investment and the possibility of a visible return on that investment. In the case of the former, the conditions are diminished by inappropriately low funding rates and complex regulation, and in the latter by the lack of any discernible demand. Universities may be able to find some alternative sources of income through commercial and philanthropic activity, and save some costs through sharing services and facilities, but not at anywhere near the scale needed to address the structural deficit in the funding of their core activities. 

So it seems inevitable that some will fail. Indeed, it is a feature and not a bug of the current market-led system in England that some providers must fail. It is therefore alarming that there appears to be no political or societal awareness of the likely consequences of such failure, and no effective regulatory process for managing such failure.

The student protection regime that forms part of the OfS Regulatory Framework is not linked in any formal way to insolvency proceedings, and the assurances provided in student protection plans are not likely to be effective in the event of an institution becoming insolvent. Students will have to take their place amongst other unsecured creditors and the money available is unlikely to get very far. Of course, the sector would no doubt rally round and support affected students to transfer, as it has done in other cases to date.

But there will inevitably be disruption and adverse consequences and the impact of such a disorderly exit on students, staff, partners and local communities, and indeed on the sector’s reputation, should not be underestimated.

The concern however is that politicians and the regulator are doing precisely that and lack a plan for tackling what could be a hugely complex practical, legal and financial crisis. 

Beyond the financial challenges for institutions, there are a whole host of unresolved issues relating to students and their experience.  The impact of the cost of living crisis and the failure of the maintenance arrangements to keep track mean that some students are struggling. Wider mental health concerns in the wake of the pandemic, plus ongoing pressure to define the duty of care owed by institutions to students who are struggling, keep a spotlight on what are perceived to be shortcomings in the support students are offered at both a governmental and institutional level. Aside from the profound toll this can take on individuals, where the absence of support causes students to drop out or fail, this could affect institutional compliance with regulatory metrics such as continuation or completion rates.

Institutions are also seen as failing students who suffer at the hands of other students, whether as a result of sexual misconduct, or discrimination and harassment on the grounds of religion, race, gender or protected belief, leading to greater regulation in these areas. These are not easy cases to resolve, and it remains to be seen whether the OfS’s proposed new condition of registration will result in any real improvement. The ongoing tension between freedom of expression and freedom from harassment has been sharply in focus on university campuses since the Middle Eastern conflict erupted on 7 October, and the sector is still struggling to process the impact of recent employment decisions on protected beliefs such as gender critical views and anti-Zionism. None of these problems show any signs of going away or getting easier. Nor does it appear that the election will deliver any immediate solutions.

So what can institutions do to position themselves for more favourable political attention under the next government? 

Firstly, they can demonstrate that they are key partners in supporting national renewal. Labour has pledged a mission-led government, and universities are well placed to form part of the alliance between national and regional government, civil society and business that such an approach would require. Even a Conservative government might be persuaded to revitalise its levelling-up missions if it moves into a period of more stable leadership that starts to engage with the longer term job of fixing the country. How the missions are defined is almost irrelevant; the key is they provide a framework for universities to define and articulate their value, collectively and individually, in facilitating the renewal that the country desperately needs. 

Secondly, universities can articulate more clearly how they meet the needs of their regions and communities, working with combined authorities, local authorities and other education institutions such as colleges to address the myriad of challenges each region faces. Much of this may relate to skills shortages and supporting local economies, but, for example, the financial crisis engulfing many local authorities could offer an opportunity to deploy student volunteering and service learning in a way that provides some continuity of services and facilities for local communities. 

Finally, universities should address the perception that they are not delivering a good deal for students by reviewing and revising their processes so that they are as student-friendly as possible and being as clear as possible with prospective students about what they can expect. This needs to include far more induction around navigating the culture and behavioural expectations on campus, so that concepts such as freedom of expression and freedom from harm are better understood from the outset.

It also needs to include a review of recruitment practices to ensure that students end up on the course and at the institution that best suit them. In a competitive market, this can be difficult to do, but ultimately, demonstrating that universities have the best interests of students, rather than purely or primarily their own institutional interests, at heart may be the best way to secure a more supportive funding, regulatory and policy environment after the election. 

The theme of this year’s AHEP Annual Conference and Exhibition delves into this topic further with the theme ‘Pioneering through Political Uncertainty: Navigating the Impact of UK Elections on Higher Education’. Join us, and hundreds of HE professionals at the University of Warwick, 24-26 March for what promises to be our most transformative conference yet – explore the conference programme and book your place today!

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