News round-up: Universities plead for financial bailout as they brace for huge losses from Covid-19

The repercussions of Covid-19 are being felt across the higher education sector as Universities UK warn that without support some institutions risk collapse, students go on rent strike, and the REF and TEF are postponed indefinitely

Universities UK: state bailout required to save institutions – Times Higher Education, Jack Grove, 10/04/2020

Some UK universities could go bust unless they receive significant government support given the immense financial impact of the coronavirus shutdown, Universities UK has warned.

In a direct appeal to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, and other senior cabinet ministers published on 10 April, the organisation said that “some universities will face financial failure, with severe impacts on their students, staff, local community and [the] regional economy” without “proactive support” from government.

See also: Government considers universities bailout plea – Research Professional News

Read UUK’s proposal here.

UCU says Universities UK proposals to support universities does not go far enough – UCU, 9/04/2020

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘This looks like a piecemeal approach that fails recognise the size of the problem, or the damage we risk doing to our academic capacity. We need a fundamental shift in how universities operate if we are to protect our institutions, staff and students, and to ensure higher education can play its vital role in the recovery.

‘Instead of talking up mergers or narrowing the curriculum, universities need to step back from the dog-eat-dog approach of recent times and come together properly in the wider interest. We fear these proposals risk leaving many universities vulnerable at a time when we need the whole sector to be firing on all cylinders.

International students hit ‘core financial problem’ for UK sector – Times Higher Education, Simon Baker, 07/04/2020

A large drop in international student numbers is still likely to be the biggest single issue for UK universities irrespective of any disruption in domestic admissions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it has been suggested.

University finance data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that about a quarter of institutions in the UK rely on domestic students for at least two-thirds of all their income. At the same time, only about a dozen universities receive a third or more of all their income from non-UK students.

How can universities climb out of the coming financial abyss? – Wonkhe, Debbie McVitty, 05/04/2020

There will almost certainly be a sharp and significant decline in international student demand for entry next year, even if the UK is not still in lockdown in September. A 2017 London Economics model undertaken for HEPI found that a number of factors including global GDP, exchange rates and commodity prices are all important influencers on demand for international education. “Given that oil prices, for example, have dropped almost 50 per cent over the last 12 months, you could easily see 5-7 per cent decline in international demand before you even factor in the effects of the pandemic”, says Gavan Conlon, co-head of the education and labour market teams at London Economics.

See also: Too big to fail? A request for government support for providers following Covid-19 – Wonke, David Kernohan, 10/04/2020

UK’s next REF postponed until further notice – Times Higher Education, Jack Grove, 24/03/2020

The Research Excellence Framework 2021 is to be postponed “until further notice” amid the coronavirus crisis.

In a letter published on 24 March, Kim Hackett, REF director at Research England, says that the UK-wide audit of research outputs will be postponed to allow institutions to divert staff into other areas, “including for those working in clinical and health-related fields”.

See also: Shadow minister says REF ‘serves no purpose‘ – Research Professional News, Chris Parr, 15/04/2020

WONKHE analysis: Charting the REF waters ahead – Wonkhe, Kim Hackett, 07/04/2020

It is in the face of considerable uncertainty that more big REF decisions are needed. What is the best point for the revised submission deadline? Should the deadlines for outputs and / or impact be extended? By how much? Universally, or for affected pieces only? Some of these are questions about which, only weeks ago, there had been certainty.

We know, in the REF team and the wider funding bodies, that the sudden uncertainty on these issues is difficult to manage and plan for, and that answers sooner rather than later would help. But only if the answers are the right ones for the future in which they’ll take place. There are a lot of different views on what these answers should be, and still so many unknowns ahead of us.

University employers can access government job retention scheme – Research Professional News, Michelle Donelan, 08/04/2020

Michelle Donelan, Universities Minister, said: “I know there may be large numbers of staff who are on short-term, casual or hourly paid contracts, as well as those employed by outsourced services. They will of course be anxious about how they will manage financially. 

In most circumstances I expect employers will be able to continue paying staff. But where this is not the case, workers can rely on the package of support announced by the chancellor, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which will help pay staff wages and keep people in employment. This allows employers to claim for 80 per cent of the usual monthly wage costs for employees who are placed on a leave of absence, up to £2,500 a month. HMRC is working urgently to get the scheme up and running and we expect the first grants to be paid in weeks.”

Stockpiling students? Covid-19, caps, and growth inequalities in UK HE – USSBriefs, Leon Rocha, 09/04/2020

In light of the global Covid-19 crisis, the UK government and university vice-chancellors represented by Universities UK (UUK) are reportedly considering the return of student number controls (‘caps’) at English universities, to avoid a ‘free-for-all on admissions’. Whatever happens in the UK between now and September — assuming we can even start the new academic year then — international student numbers will significantly drop.

This is especially a problem for a number of universities that have aggressively expanded via the income from international students, and are now trying to make up any financial black holes of their own making by ‘stockpiling’ domestic students — to the detriment of large swathes of the sector.

Students in England have ‘less contact hours than rest-of-UK peers’ – Times Higher Education, Anna McKie, 16/04/2020

English students have fewer scheduled hours and written assignments than their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland despite having the highest fees, according to an analysis by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

Predicted grades appeal system is not fair, says ex-UCAS chief – The Telegraph, Camilla Turner, 13/04/2020

The predicted grades appeal system is not fair, the former head of the UK’s university admissions service has said as she warns that  taking a gap year in order to take A-level exams is only an attractive option for middle class students.

Last month, the Government announced that all A-level and GCSE exams will be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic and predicted that grades will be based on a combination of pupils’ mock exam results and “non-exam assessment”.  

Adequate is enough – and some days we won’t manage even that – Times Higher Education, Petra Boynton, 16/04/2020

If the focus of academia continues to be progress, publications and perfectionism, the list of those at risk of being treated unsympathetically is long. It includes those with caring or parenting responsibilities; those estranged from families; international students and single people prone to loneliness. We must shift our priorities, putting welfare front and centre for the moment. 

More than half of Chinese students could cancel UK study plans – Times Higher Education, Jack Grove, 09/04/2020

About 60 per cent of Chinese students who have already applied to study in the UK next year are either likely to cancel their plans or have yet to decide, according to a new survey. They survey of nearly 11,000 people also found that about 40 per cent of those already studying outside China were either unlikely to return or might still decide not to travel back for their courses.

Quantifying Higher Education: Governing Universities and Academics by Numbers – Politics Governance, 09/04/2020

Over the past decades, ‘governing by numbers’ has taken a flight in the higher education sector. Performance-based budgeting and quality assurance schemes orient universities to new objectives, while rankings have globalised the metrified observation of higher education at large. Where previously no indicators existed, they are being introduced; where indicators already existed, they are being standardised for purposes of comparison.

This thematic issue aims to work towards a more comprehensive understanding of the growing diversity of quantification-based instruments in higher education sectors in three European countries. The effects of quantification are noticed at all levels of the higher education system, from policy makers at the top of the regulatory pyramid down to students and academic staff.

Has the leap online changed higher education forever? – Times Higher Education, Anna McKie, 14/04/2020

By March 2020, the colossal scale of the coronavirus pandemic was clear. Universities around the world quickly closed campuses to protect their students and staff and to slow the spread of the virus. However, determined not to abandon their raison d’être – teaching and learning – they rapidly opened again, this time online.

According to Unesco, 89.5 per cent of the world’s learners, which includes those enrolled at universities, are now being taught online, largely because of lockdowns in place to tackle the spread of Covid-19.

150 students at the University of Sussex begin ‘rent strike’ – The Badger, Becca Bashford, 14/04/2020

150 students at the University of Sussex have begun a rent strike, in an effort to force university management to waive third term rent payments in light of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The rent strike has been organised by a student collective – ‘Sussex, Cut the Rent’ – who state that they are protesting “the insistence that students trapped on campus pay their rent as normal in the midst of a global pandemic and government lockdown”. As it stands, the University has informed students that any outstanding rent payments will still apply if students remain on campus, however students who have returned home are eligible to have their rent waived. 

Students angry at empty rooms rent charge – The BBC, Sean Coughlan, 09/04/2020

Student leaders in England say full rent should not be charged next term on university rooms left empty by the coronavirus shutdown.

“Where the situation is so unprecedented there should be some more understanding,” says Helena Schofield, president of the National Union of Students at the University of Portsmouth.

Universities face fines for giving out low offers to secure students – The Boar, Francesca Johnson, 13/04/2020

The Government has warned universities could face fines of up to half a million pounds for giving out low offers to secure students. Prior to this move, English universities were already urged to refrain from increasing use of “controversial offers” due to the disruption of the coronavirus crisis on exams cancellations.

Universities have now been warned that they could be fined as much as half a million pounds for “poaching” students from rival universities. This is due to offering degree places on the basis of low or no A-level grades for students that must decide on their offer choices by May 19.

Exam pupils to be put in ‘league tables’ for results – The Times, Nicola Woolcock, 04/04/2020

Teachers will calculate GCSE and A-level grades this summer by drawing up a league table of pupils in their classes, it was announced yesterday. Students will be given a grade based on their predictions, but will also get the chance to sit exams in the autumn.

Ofqual, the watchdog for exams, said that teenagers would be able to use the higher of the two grades. It raises the possibility of hundreds of thousands of pupils wanting to sit exams at a time when schools and universities are keen to start the next academic year, after effectively being closed for six months.

How students are helping the NHS during the coronavirus crisis – The Guardian, Molly Blackall, 10/04/2020

From university and school closures to A-level cancellations, young people have been deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Despite this, staff and students across the UK are launching initiatives to support both their local community and the NHS.

Redefining the employability agenda in the age of Covid-19 – HEPI, Tristram Hooley, 11/04/2020

Covid-19 has had a profound impact on all sectors, with higher education feeling its share of the pain. At the start of March, no one imagined that university education would be so radically transformed. But, by the 19 March all teaching had moved online. Unsurprisingly, commentary about the crisis from the sector has focused on the problems with managing admissions, ensuring some kind of viable student experience and reworking examination processes. This is important, but so far there has been insufficient discussion of the employment timebomb that is ticking for this year’s (and maybe next year’s) graduates.

Defend long-term research, scholars urged after ERC head quits – Times Higher Education, David Matthews, 10/04/2020

Scientists have been called on to defend long-term, curiosity-driven research after the president of the European Research Council (ERC) was ousted from his post this week for trying to launch an emergency coronavirus funding programme that would have upended the body’s blue-skies mission.

Mauro Ferrari resigned on 7 April after just three months in post with a sweeping attack on the ERC and the entire European Union, saying he had “lost faith in the system itself” after the ERC’s scientific council rejected his proposal for specific funding to combat the novel coronavirus.

Recruitment is on hold: the students graduating into the Covid-19 recession – The Guardian, Tess Reidy, 10/04/2020

Students are starting to realise they will be graduating into a global recession. According to the Institute of Student Employers (ISE), many firms have scaled down their recruitment of entry-level staff and more than a quarter of businesses are reducing the number of graduates they hire this year.

While some firms are moving assessments and interviews online, the majority have cancelled them. “Thousands of young people are supposed to be entering the labour market from July and they could be left without work and nothing to do while coronavirus is sorted out,” says Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the ISE. “We need to make sure that a whole generation isn’t lost.”

The government must protect universities in this crisis or job cuts will follow – The Guardian, Jo Grady, 03/04/2020

We need to see colleges and universities work together, and with others, in the national interest. The government should insist that, in return for underwriting current funding, institutions accept a duty to work cooperatively to benefit students and our wider society. This means an end to the unseemly competition for students between institutions, which is both wasteful and unproductive, and will lead to even more financial instability.

This cooperation must extend to exams and assessment. It is increasingly clear that attempts to hold exams on a “business as usual” basis will have profound consequences for the fairness and equality of the process.

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