by Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor, Sheffield-Hallam University
Universities have proved their worth in the COVID-19 crisis, responding at speed not simply to their own students and research partners’ changed demands, but to the communities and the national effort. But there is a clear sense that the skies will darken once the immediate crisis abates. The concerns include a precipitous fall in international students and constrained local mobility, student retention and progression to university, and the impact of a prolonged economic recession on research and development budgets. These concerns led Universities UK – the umbrella body for the country’s 137 universities, of which I am a Board member, to develop a proposal to government for a systematic programme of support.
Universities UK sought a package which addressed four concerns: the severe loss of income to the sector as a result of the rapid decline of international student enrolments; the stabilisation of the UK undergraduate admissions market; the ability of universities to support communities through economic recovery, and a government transformation fund to support any local restructuring of provision which might be necessary. The proposals were submitted to government in early April and for many institutions, it has been an uncomfortable wait. At the core of the UUK package is a proposal that government should double the research money – the so-called ‘Quality-Related’ or ‘QR’ stream into universities for 2020/1 which would cost about £2bn.
Government has now responded and their concern has been to address short term cash flow, and they have achieved this in some ingenious, if relatively low-cost ways for themselves: they have re-profiled the 2020/21 student loan payment arrangements which will bring forward £2.6bn of payments to institutions which would have been due later in the year. They have shifted the rules on student support funds to allow universities greater leeway in supporting students. On research funding, they have brought forward £100m of QR money from 2020/21 into the current academic year, a far cry from the £2bn requested, and have established a ministerial task force on the sustainability of research.
These are undoubtedly short-term cash stabilisation measures. They do not – any of them – solve the longer-term problems but they should prevent more immediate cash flow problems. The sector, and especially the most research-intensive universities is disappointed by this, and for obvious reasons.
The government package is not what UUK asked for. It is mostly achieved by re-profiling planned spending: the sector wanted new money, and quickly. There is a widespread view that these are immediate measures and that more will need to follow. But the package probably stabilises institutions in the short term. It then leaves open the really tough policy questions which COVID-19 has opened up: is it sensible to run the nation’s research on the back of overseas student surpluses? What sort of role do we need universities to play in the economic recovery? How do universities play their part in addressing the deep regional inequalities? Government has decided that these are tough questions, and questions for another day. Our job now is focused on making sure that day definitely comes and proactively thinking about what role universities could and should play in the post-COVID recovery. Universities have received some relief this week, but we are not out of the woods yet.
Related reading: see this HEPI blog post, written by Professor Sir Chris Husbands and Natalie Day (Head of Policy and Strategy), ‘Eight interventions against Covid-19 for the higher education sector’, March 30 2020, https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/03/30/eight-interventions-against-covid-19-for-the-higher-education-sector/