Vice-chancellors issue their own HE election manifestos

Battle lines were drawn at the annual conferences of Britain’s two main political parties this month – with plenty of froth about the future of tertiary education in the United Kingdom, but a lack of substance about tackling the growing funding crisis facing universities or how to support students struggling to keep pace with inflation, particularly for accommodation.

With opinion polls continuing to show the likelihood of a Labour Party victory at the next general election, expected in 2024, or at least a coalition government to replace 13 years of Conservative rule, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak used his speech to the Tory faithful at the party’s gathering in Manchester to attack the last Labour government’s goal of expanding higher education as “one of the great mistakes of the last 30 years” and said he was abandoning “30 years of failed consensus” towards universities.

However, it was not clear whether his threats to “stop universities enrolling students on courses that do nothing for their life chances” (what Sunak describes as “rip-off degrees”) will actually lead to a control on student numbers, or for that matter what Labour would do for tertiary education if it wins power after so long in the wilderness.

To help focus the minds of party chiefs on higher education, vice-chancellors from three very different English universities released their own manifestos at fringe events at both party conferences hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

The three vice-chancellors agreed on the need to tackle the cost-of-living crisis among students and the growing shortage of student accommodation and called for a single government department to replace the two currently overseeing higher education – one for teaching and another for research – but they differed on priorities when asking for more public funding.

Sheffield Hallam manifesto

The manifesto from Professor Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University in the north of England, was compiled with Natalie Day, the university’s head of policy and strategy.

Titled “The fourth mission: mobilising universities to drive a high-skill society”, it was by far the most labour-market focused and highlighted the pace of change with relatively low skilled jobs, including once apparently reliable white-collar jobs, being “thinned out by the inexorable development of technology” – which is certain to be accelerated by artificial intelligence.

This is spurring almost all middle-income countries to invest more in higher education and while the UK has been good at fundamental science and research, it is “poor at turning inventions into innovations” and “not good at developing mid-level skills”, reads the Sheffield Hallam manifesto.

“The challenge is to design a policy and financial framework that gives universities the incentives, flexibility and autonomy to satisfy the full range of skilling, up-skilling and re-skilling the economy needs,” says the Sheffield Hallam manifesto.

To ensure universities are up to the task, government action is needed on funding, regional policy, and regulation, it states.

Funding regime disincentivises micro-credentials

The current funding regime is “almost entirely” geared towards full-time undergraduate degrees “and has led to a precipitate decline in part-time students” and “disincentivises universities from offering, short, stackable micro-credentials”.

The proposed Lifelong Learning Entitlement from 2025 should help, despite the lack of detail, but a more diverse higher education system is required to attract mature learners, and Husbands suggests the Student Loans Company be re-engineered to drive flexible and part-time learning.

Tackling the brain drain from universities in the North and the Midlands exporting skill to London and the South East of England is another Sheffield Hallam priority. Husbands said the government must be held to earlier Brexit promises to “maintain funding previously provided by European Union structural funds”.

Regulatory tools need shaking up, with Sheffield Hallam’s manifesto suggesting the Office for Students (OfS) in England be merged with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, the independent body reviewing student complaints, and redesigned to serve more than just full-time three-year undergraduates.

The OfS should also come together with UK Research and Innovation in one government department to encourage joined-up policymaking, with Husbands and Day also suggesting establishing a National Skills Council “bringing together government, universities, further education colleges, sector bodies and business leaders to shape a long-term skills strategy”.

‘Tertiary education’ was the name of the game with learners best served by successful collaborations between further and higher education and the Sheffield Hallam manifesto calls on the next government to establish a strategic Tertiary Funding Council with oversight of the sector and the sustainability of institutions.

On the topic of apprenticeships, Husbands and Day said that they would keep the apprenticeship levy, but streamline the bureaucracy and make it simpler for small firms.

Sussex manifesto

The manifesto titled “Investing in our future: higher education as a public good” from Professor Sasha Roseneil, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, has the longest shopping list for more public funding – justified because universities are “fundamental to democracy, to economic and societal progress and, now more than ever, to the survival of our planet”.

However, investment in higher education is falling and home undergraduate tuition fees, paid via government-backed loans, no longer cover the cost of educating and supporting students. If they had kept pace with inflation since 2012 the fees would now be £14,000 (US$17,000) and not £9,250 claimed Roseneil, who accepts they are unlikely to rise any time soon as MPs have to vote in parliament to increase them.

Research is also severely under-funded, with UK universities receiving only 69% of the cost of research from funders (down from 76% in 2014-15).

Seven ways to increase funding

The Sussex manifesto proposes seven ways to increase university funding without increasing student fees and says recent changes to the student loan repayment scheme mean graduates will pay back more and for longer, but universities are getting no extra money.

Roseneil suggests the following:

• A COVID generation student premium to help a generation profoundly affected by the pandemic, along the lines of increased funding to primary and secondary education.

• Increased mental health and wellbeing support and university clinics, paid for by working with local National Health System providers and available to all young people.

• A ‘Science Superpower and Crucible for Creativity’ grant to renew infrastructure and equipment and hire world-leading researchers and educators.

• Student maintenance financed by separating the Resource Accounting and Budgeting (RAB) charge – the percentage of money loaned to students and not expected to be repaid – with student fee loans and student maintenance loans treated differently.

• An independent, comprehensive review of university funding, including student members, university staff, parents and general taxpayers, to look again at a progressive graduate tax to replace the present system and other options.

• Local public investment in student housing to give universities access to cheaper capital and local authorities a new revenue stream from student rents and a greater say over the type of accommodation built.

• A single government department for universities.

Birmingham manifesto

The pitch from Professor Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, a research-intensive university based in England’s second city, was titled “Unleash universities’ potential to solve the nation’s challenges”.

It acknowledges that the political consensus recognising the transformational impact of higher education institutions has been “broken quickly and catastrophically” with universities coming under “increased scrutiny and a new regulatory regime in England which is both more challenging and less sympathetic to the sector”.

However, rather than expecting the government to solve the sector’s problems, Tickell argues: “We must be here to help the government solve theirs. To do this, universities should be the architects of our own destiny and we need to recognise that the answer to the challenges we face is not always more money.”

However, despite that, Tickell still had a number of ‘asks’ from an incoming government.

Conducive environment

The cheapest is “a conducive environment for universities to thrive” with the next ‘ask’ being to prioritise quality-related funding to allow universities “to pursue high-risk high-reward discovery research”.

The third request is “a long-term, sustainable and predictable funding model”, with Tickell saying: “Even the most casual observer of universities must recognise that the current funding system is – if not fundamentally broken – in an unhealthy state and manages to satisfy no one.”

He wants a cross-party independent commission to agree “the right balance of public funding and student investment in higher education”.

For UK R&D to remain internationally competitive, he says, the decision for the UK to re-join the European Horizon Programme should be backed up with substantial investment.

International students

His manifesto also calls for better support for UK universities on the world stage to maintain the UK’s attractiveness to international students, saying: “International students studying in the UK are equivalent in export earnings to the whole of the UK automotive sector” and “many courses, particularly at masters level, are simply not viable without them.”

So, an incoming government must create a positive environment and stop creating damaging headlines about universities, “sometimes for political expediency”, that are read in Mumbai and Shanghai.

Finally, he asks the next UK government to “set the broad policy parameters, then leave universities to get on with what they do best” and to accept that “far from being part of the problem, our universities are part of the solution to the UK’s chronic and endemic challenges”.

Higher Education Policy Institute Director Nick Hillman said the manifestos were launched at ‘standing room only’ events, with the Labour event focusing on the need for student maintenance grants and replacing the further education-higher education split with a tertiary approach. The issue of student mental health came up at both events, he said.

Hillman told University World News that despite ‘higher education bashing’ by Sunak and other Tory politicians, “the oddest feature at the Manchester [Tory] conference was the contrast between the digs at universities from the main stage and the practical policies announced – so we had new medical school places alongside a lot of anti-student rhetoric and extra research funding alongside negative science-is-woke rhetoric”.

Change lobbying tactics

Mark Leach, founder of the higher education policy think tank Wonkhe, said in a blog after attending the party conferences that the sector needs to change its lobbying tactics over fees and funding, particularly as Labour is “resigned to frozen fees and a fixed envelope of spending”.

He said it is time to move on from “increasingly tired and fuzzy asks” – an apparent dig at the vice-chancellors’ manifestos – and suggested “the only intervention that seems to have had any purchase is that from London Economics”, which University World News reported on back in January. This involves “stepped repayments” designed to remove the “regressive features” of the current loan system, which has become a “Frankenstein monster”.

Another party conference attendee, Eve Alcock, director of public affairs at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, tweeted that with ‘tertiary’ being the buzzword across fringe events, England should learn from Scotland and Wales who are way ahead on quality models for a tertiary sector.

She also complained in a blog after the Labour conference that “the higher education sector seems to speak, largely, to itself. It’s the same faces at the same events, with little evidence of reaching those outside the bubble and making a real impact”.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.