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UK: Silence as the battle for survival begins

A self-inflicted storm is engulfing universities in England in the name of deficit reduction. The British government, launched on the promise of revitalised politics, has put increased tuition fees into the centre of a maelstrom. But the bigger picture is that, with an 80% cut in government funding for teaching, the grant for the majority of courses is being abolished. Many universities face financial instability yet university leaders have put up little public resistance.

The overarching neo-liberal goal of rolling back the state sits comfortably with the harsh treatment of deficit reduction. Already, and with an unmistakeable harking back to the 1980s, the talk is of there being no alternative.

Until now universities could broadly plan what their government grant would be and so what courses they would offer to students; but the heightened dependence on fee income introduces a new uncertainty. When some universities gain at the expense of others in price competition, managing the student experience will be fraught with avoidable difficulties.

Similarly, when individual courses significantly over or under-recruit, problems occur and, extrapolating to the institutional level, it is immediately possible to see universities that lose out will become financially unstable.

While a rush of students is expected to try to get into university this year to avoid the rise in fees, subsequent years present an altogether gloomier picture. The demographic decline in 18-year-olds, debt aversion, and anxieties about the added value of a graduate education in uncertain labour markets will be accompanied by a new threat: the all too predictable outcome of local universities closing courses or even departments when students want to study closer to home.

The prospect of greater personal indebtedness for students is replicated for the national exchequer given that, as tuition fees rise, so will the borrowing that government uses to fund student loans.

But where are the vice-chancellors while this is happening? They are inclined to compromise with whatever government is in power, negotiating behind the scenes rather than opposing in public. Much of this is via traditional pressure group type activity - either through Universities UK or the membership groups to which many belong, namely, the Alliance, million+, Russell, or 1994 groups.

The appeasement tendency of Universities UK stems from the belief that keeping the government onside is the only way to ensure extra fee income is assured. But there may be nothing extra for many universities and many will get a lot less.

The resulting destabilisation of higher education is not an outcome anyone would have wished for. So why are universities in the position of collectively having to keep quiet about the cuts, while feeling individually cast adrift in the uncertainties of a new higher education fees market?

The Alliance group of universities represents 22 "major, business-focused universities". It wants a public information campaign about the new fees, arguing that they are not an excuse for removal of public funding for teaching. There is damage to be done to the broader common good by giving to universities with one hand and taking away with the other.

Million+ represents 27 universities and leads on widening participation. It accuses the government of abandoning the principle of additionality, whereby student fee income to universities supplemented the teaching grant. Million+ plus denounced tuition fee increases as "robbing Peter to pay Paul", saying two-thirds of graduates will be worse off and the policies will not give good value for money.

The Russell group of 20 research-led universities welcomed the increased tuition fees as providing "a life-saving cash transfusion" for universities faced by public spending cuts. No criticism or opposition is offered publicly to the almost complete removal of the teaching grant. Here is a representative group seeing its own preferences for policy change actually embedded in the government's proposals.

The 1994 Group, representing 19 "internationally renowned research intensive" universities, expressed its "disappointment" about cuts to the teaching grant. It accepted that increased tuition fees must offset this loss in university income, given the country's uncertain economic future.

While the less public dialogue between higher education leaders and government continues, what comfort can be taken from their views so far? Fewer than 90 of the UK's more than 160 higher education institutions belong to mission groups, so many vice-chancellors and other leaders prefer to speak for themselves. But there is an overriding, supine impression from them in the face of radical government policy change.

The million+ group apart, vice-chancellors look resigned to what is to befall their institutions - with some sensing a pot of gold and others like an animal frozen in the glare of the headlights, not knowing when the collision will happen or how hard it will be for them. As pressure groups go, they are too incorporated in government policy making. This should not give comfort to anyone concerned about the future of universities in the UK.

Meantime, international students face an unsettling future as universities are drawn into the government's conundrum in making good its promises on immigration. Dominic Scott, Chief Executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, has argued against including international students in net migration figures and capping their numbers, saying it is both misleading and irrelevant.

"They are so clearly net contributors to the economy, paying all their own fees and living expenses, having no entitlements to welfare or housing and with none of their time here contributing in any way to entitlements to settlement," Scott said. "It is difficult to see, therefore, what burden they might be perceived to put on the state or public services and why any ceiling or reduction in their numbers would create any advantage to the UK."

The perfect storm for international students is not just about higher domestic fees and destabilisation caused by funding cuts, but also the reduction in international student visas. Would anyone be surprised in these circumstances if such students looked elsewhere, while demand from domestic students became volatile? And what cheers then for coalition politics?

* Philip Garrahan is an emeritus professor at Sheffield Hallam University. p.garrahan@homecall.co.uk

Isn't it difficult to critique the government's policy when all one has is the funding letter announcing the cuts in very general terms and a couple of speeches giving inconsistent views on higher education's future? Won't the forthcoming White Paper on higher education set out the policy and its rationale more fully and thus provide the material for a considered response to the government's decisions?

Gavin Moodie
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