English higher education in pursuit of income: the consequences

Guest post by Prof G.R.Evans

In the last few years there have been radical changes in the way English higher education is funded and regulated.  That has had negative consequences not only for students  but also at the receiving end of funding, where higher education providers have to survive financially and need to be able to plan ahead. Perhaps it is time these knock-on effects were brought more consistently to notice.

Funding for teaching

On the ‘teaching’ front, there has been almost total abolition of the taxpayer-funded ‘block grant’ for English universities which had  previously been visible in the national accounts. The move to funding teaching through much higher student tuition fees (tax-payer-funded through the Student Loans Company), tucked the student loan book out of sight in those accounts. On 18 July Andrew McGettigan published on WonkHE a masterly analysis of the way it all works, and the Times business pages published a stark warning that that might have to change and the full cost be published.

The consequences will affect educational opportunities for students both undergraduate and graduate, because they encourage providers to make decisions for financial rather than academic reasons.

Some of these consequences have become familiar through media coverage. Positively encouraged by Government and currently under consideration by a Select Committee, has been a focus on the ‘value for money’ a student gets for the fees paid. This approach is underpinned by the Competition and Markets Authority’s expectation that students will be regarded primarily as consumers.

It is a primary duty of the new Office for Students to protect the student interest:

Given that students, after graduation, now share course costs with taxpayers, institutions must meet the needs and aspirations of both. Where they fail to provide value for money, where students are put at risk by poor provision, or where universities don’t draw in talented students from all backgrounds, we will not hesitate to act,

wrote Michael Barber its Chief Executive on 19 July.

Higher education providers are responding to the precariousness of an income now heavily dependent on attracting fee-bearing students in sufficient numbers to keep the provider itself ‘sustainable’.  This can mean offering more popular courses and dropping less popular ones, limiting the range of courses on offer, and even requiring academic staff to design courses so as to attract large numbers of students to bring in tuition fees.  The University of Leicester’s Code of practice for the development, approval, and modification of taught provision insists, alongside the academic case for a course, that ‘the detailed resource implications of taught provision are identified and met’.

Research funding

For research-active universities there is the additional need to attract funding for research. Publicly-funded research income  was previously provided through the now defunct Higher Education Funding Council in the form of the block grant. That covered infrastructure needs such as libraries and laboratories as well as academic staff salaries. The Research Councils  provided public funding for research projects on a competitive basis.

Research funding by the taxpayer is now to come through a unification of these funding arrangements in UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), under the supervision of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (while the OfS is under the Department of Education). The public infrastructure funding will now be allocated by Research England within UKRI, articifically separating the support of the libraries and laboratories for teaching and research purposes.  The inclusion of Innovate UK within UKRI has meant that  UKRI will lose the tax benefits it would have had as a charity.

The  recent publication of the annual Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) figures in the form of  a report from the Office for Students made challenging reading.  Times Higher Education told this story under the heading UK universities’ research funding deficit soars to £3.9 billion.

In response some providers are putting heavy pressure on academics to bring in substantial sums of grant funding through ‘performance management’, with the threat of dismissal if they fail.  A particularly extreme example is the University of Salford where under the Professorial Review Process Appendix D sets out detailed calculations to determine whether a Professor is attracting grant funding and also enough students to teach to pay his or her way.  Should he or she fail further procedures follow leading ultimately to the end of employment.

The stress this causes to academic staff has begun to trigger media comment. An extreme case of 2015 was the suicide of a Professor at Imperial College, under the pressure of  ‘performance management’ and demanding expectations of success in winning large research grants.  Imperial College undertook to review its policies.

In July 2015 Times Higher Education published the findings of its survey of the  frequency with which grant-winning targets were set. It identified some which  said that ‘at least some of their departments, faculties, institutes or schools set individual grant-winning goals for at least some individuals’, including for England Imperial, Queen Mary University of London,  Plymouth University, East Anglia, Greenwich and Leeds.

Is the new funding system working?

Crude survival strategies driven by the need for money have become a necessity for providers.  The risk of damage to the educational work of universities should surely be a focus of the Office for Students as it sets the norms for the accounting practices of its newly ‘registered’ providers.  Its most recent publication covers the requirements the provider’s Accounting Officer must meet. This includes ‘plans for major restructuring’.

However, there is no mention of restructuring affecting decisions of the sort which are being taken to axe small number subjects because they are not deemed financially viable or to dismiss research staff whose successful grant applications do not meet an institutional ‘target’.  Yet such ‘Business Plans’ are being made and applied, to reconfigure institutions academically in significant ways.

Taken together, the Government’s policies and those emerging as the OfS takes shape, risk degrading England’s universities and other higher education institutions by creating perverse incentives. There is a danger of encouraging students to regard universities as degree-certificate shops where the student customer is always right and must be sold a product it thinks it wants to buy. For academic staff the workplace has become stressful and discourages the exercise of academic freedom with its innovative potential.

This is a far cry from universities as both the nation’s primary generators and transmitters of ideas and objective knowledge, and the protectors of its cultural and moral values to which there is remarkably little if any reference in Ministerial or OfS publications.  It is tempting to compare this decline in English HE with that of another product of the market: the declining English high street – tawdry, unremarkable and with little to sustain its once-great reputation for the variety, interest and value of its offerings. Is this really the way to serve the nation’s needs?