Despite the enormous contribution universities are making to addressing the coronavirus crisis, years of enforced competition have placed them under intense financial pressure. Now is the time for the sector to recover its core purpose, argues Professor James Ladyman of the University of Bristol

The teaching and research of our universities continues in the current crisis. Undergraduates and graduates are being educated remotely and scholars continue to work as do many laboratories. The expertise and knowledge of academics informs the state response, and universities are working with industry to provide the health service with the equipment it needs as people in universities anticipated before the virus reached us. Although universities have recently been derided for their alleged left-wing bias, though not on the basis of evidence, now everyone must surely be aware of how important they are to the public good. Yet UK universities went into this situation under intense financial pressure. Since their income streams are limited and overseas fees are much higher than home fees which do not cover costs, the pressure to recruit overseas students has been intense. As the Financial Times recently summarised, the sector’s finances look bad. This is especially true for those universities that have borrowed heavily, as many have done in part to invest in facilities that are intended to attract overseas students. As the Times reported on 19October, the international credit agency Moody’s concluded, as many in the sector knew already, that many more extra overseas students are needed to balance the books.

The epidemic has shown the limits of the free market

Now it seems likely that overseas recruitment is expected to be significantly reduced and apparently the dysfunctional market in higher education that was supposed to drive up standards is set to be suspended and caps imposed on home student recruitment. Universities that have expanded aggressively face grave difficulties. The energy and resources devoted to marketing and the demeaning focus on branding, unique selling points, and developing a distinctive ‘tone of voice’ will do nothing to help. It seems to be recognised, though not much remarked upon, that the idea that markets deal with the Covid-19 epidemic is not an option. Free markets can be great, but they cannot do everything as is now apparent to all. It should similarly be understood by policy makers that the market in higher education did nothing to improve standards and much to undermine them. The failure adequately to fund higher education makes it vulnerable like other public services, and just like them it needs to be funded for the public good.

The recent strikes over casualisation, pensions and other issues are likely to be forgotten in the coming months. University leaders should not forget how their academic staff carried on working, many with children at home and without access to their books and libraries. Teaching staff are redesigning courses and providing online resources and doing everything they can to allow their students to continue their education. Many have been working overtime for several weeks to look after their students.

We can no longer indulge wasteful forms of managerialism

On the other hand, throughout this crisis much of the leadership and professional services activity taking place in the sector will continue much as before to contribute nothing to teaching and research. Universities cannot function without administration, but in recent years they have wasted money on growing the number of highly paid academic managers and non-academic staff (who may earn over £100k) while failing to fund basic but essential administration adequately. The wasteful enthusiasm for leadership courses and other forms of managerialism that are of little or no value can no longer be indulged if universities are to survive. If universities are to be trusted honesty and intellectual integrity should determine how universities communicate not branding methodology. They could demonstrate where they stand by re-evaluating the pay reductions for strikers in the light of how hard they are working now (and the fact that many were unofficially working to a greater or less extent during the strike anyway).

In UK universities in recent years, collective expert judgment, including that of departments, discipline-specific examination boards, and bodies such as faculty boards and senates, has become much less authoritative. Decision-making within the sector is largely the prerogative of academics who scarcely teach and research anymore, and others who don’t do so at all. Consultation exercises provide a veneer of deliberation about decisions that have already been made. Crises provide an excuse for the powerful to take even more power for themselves. For example, in the present emergency many universities are deciding detailed policies regarding assessment centrally, when they would do better to stick to agreeing general principles and devolve their implementation to those running individual degree programmes.

As in so many walks of life, power is wielded by people who spend little or no time doing the work that matters. Oversight is purely theoretical, and every managerial initiative is declared a resounding success, while teaching is judged on the basis of meaningless National Student Survey (NSS) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) scores, and research on the basis of bogus key performance indicators. When the inevitable cuts come the sector must rediscover its purpose and prioritise its core activity. For that to happen academics must regain control of the academy.