Why The UK’s Universities Are In Crisis

Imagine a beach before the tsunami. Out at sea, the wave is gathering force, yet on the sand people are still sunbathing, blissfully unaware. That’s how it feels, one professor tells me, to be working in higher education. Academics by their nature don’t look outwards much, he argues, so not all have registered the risk to their profession. “But something absolutely dreadful is coming.”

As a scientist working in cancer research at a top British university, he’s not the kind of academic I expected to be worried about the recent nationwide flurry of threatened redundancies in higher education, the scrapping of what, so far, are mainly arts and language courses, or shrill political attacks on supposedly “woke” campus culture. But lately almost everyone in higher education seems jumpy.

This week, it was the University of Essex’s turn to hit the headlines by declaring a £13.8m shortfall, blaming a 38% drop in applications from foreign postgrad students for its plans to freeze pay and promotions. But it merely joins the University and College Union’s growing list of, so far, 39 institutions planning cuts, ranging from ancient Russell Group names to relative minnows, and from modest voluntary redundancy schemes to the £100m savings that Coventry University plans to find over the next two years. What’s striking is that it’s seemingly solid, middle-ranking research institutions, not those bumping along the bottom of league tables, that are starting to hit the panic button.

At best, a miserable summer beckons for lecturers at risk of losing their jobs – another I spoke to was preparing to mark his students’ finals and reapply for his post in the same anxious week – while students face a no-frills future of fewer choices and more uncertainty. (A friend’s son found out only halfway through his gap year that the history and politics degree he was due to start this autumn has been ditched for a distinctly stripped-back version).

At worst, some are asking how the sector would cope if an established university goes bust. Since that’s never happened before, nobody seems entirely sure how it would work: what would happen to students halfway through their degrees, or whether one failure might spook creditors into pulling the plug on others.

‘This week, it was the University of Essex’s turn to hit the headlines by declaring a £13.8m shortfall.’ Photograph: Felix Clay

What has happened to Britain’s supposedly world-beating universities is partly the old post-Brexit story of the young suffering the consequences of something they overwhelmingly didn’t vote for. But it’s complicated by austerity, and arguably by some vice-chancellors biting off more than they can chew.

The story starts with the freezing of tuition fees in 2017, creating a growing hole in university finances that many plugged by recruiting more foreign students (who pay more than British teenagers for the same degree). That kept the show on the road until the resulting immigration numbers became politically toxic, prompting a government clampdown on visas and a sudden 33% fall in foreign student numbers compared with the same time last year. In February, I wrote that we were about to find out what happens when young people stop coming to a country publicly hostile to them, and now here we are: the net result isn’t more choice for British teenagers but, if anything, the reverse, given that foreign students were effectively subsidising them.

Meanwhile, middle-ranking universities have long complained of grander institutions stealing their lunch, by expanding humanities courses – which are relatively cheap to provide – and taking in teenagers who would otherwise have gone to the next tier of universities down. Some borrowed heavily to expand and make themselves more attractive, only to be caught out by rocketing inflation and borrowing costs. Put all of that together and it’s no surprise that an independent report commissioned by Universities UK from the accountants PwC notes 40% of English and Northern Irish universities (plus 36% of Scottish ones, operating under a different fee system) are expected to go into the red this year, adding that “it may be inevitable that there is some loss of provision”. And in a mockery of what was understood by levelling up, students from poorer backgrounds may be hardest hit: they’re disproportionately likely either to go to post-1992 institutions, or to choose the nearest university so that they can save on rent by living at home. If it scraps the course they wanted, what then?

Perhaps you find it hard to care about universities at a time when the NHS is on its knees and everything in public life seems broken. Or perhaps you think teenagers with middling A-level results are better off not racking up debt for degrees that might not help their job prospects all that much. (Though, even as Britain argues about whether 35% of teenagers going to college is too much, Australia is debating the case for 55%.)

What we’re seeing isn’t some slow, careful rebalancing of the system, done with teenagers’ best interests at heart. Instead, it’s just another messy, confused decline of something Britain was genuinely once good at, which contributed billions to the economy while projecting soft power abroad. Fixing it will take more than just funding, although a rise in tuition fees now seems inevitable. What’s needed is a more fundamental restructuring, and an honest debate about exactly what – and who – a modern university education is really for. Right now, that’s the essay question to which nobody seems to have a clear answer.

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