England’s universities are showing a strange double face to the world. They are actually one of the most successful part of the economy, in all probability generating more than £100bn a year for the British economy. With record student numbers both from the UK and with non-EU overseas numbers also still surging, they are also likely to get more and more successful over the next decade.
On the other hand, the sector is being convulsed by industrial action, student dissatisfaction, pension crises, redundancies and a growing scatter of departmental closures that is likely to spread in the years to come. How can there be so much discontent among such riches?
One key reason is the way in which the sector has been destabilised since the removal of caps on student numbers in 2015. That means that some institutions can move in and scoop up every student they can possibly grab in subjects that are cheap to teach – the humanities and social sciences, for instance – in order to subsidise other more expensive subjects.
When coupled with a freeze on fees since the Conservatives’ less-than-impressive showing in the 2017 general election, this has led to a situation where many universities’ top management teams see no option but to shore up their own finances by stacking the students high and cheap.
Some campuses are now absolutely groaning at the seams. Students are taught by doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers, or by temporary staff hired by the term or for the ten months of the academic year. Some lecturers can only be seen with a telescope. A few absolutely vast first-year modules defy understanding or management at all.
The quality of university life is adversely affected: as with so many other facets of higher education, this isn’t just about teaching. Libraries are more than rammed. Some students are shipped out to other cities. Halls are eye-wateringly expensive, and some local residents are starting to lose patience with the ever-mounting tsunami of students hitting their neighbourhoods.
Inevitably, any action must meet an equal and opposite reaction: some universities are now left feeling a bit, well, empty, with tumbleweed more evident than partying young people. Even worse in some ways is the impossibility of planning in the free-for-all. Some departments have ridden a wave of surging student numbers and then crashed down to earth with a big fall in numbers the very next year. A very boring part of the economy has been turned into something a lot more like the Wild West.
Inevitably, quite a few departments are going to close. It’s by no means clear how many will be shut down, but it won’t just be a handful. That’s a waste, not only because it’s better to have a large number of providers to provide freshness and vigour, but in crude economic terms too.
Once upon a time, when higher education was part of the public sector, it was government that paid for all those buildings that might now stand empty, or be rented out at really cheap rates. It was and is the taxpayer who stands behind those Masters and PhD training programmes of academics losing their jobs. Research funded by the public may go nowhere if the lecturers conducting it suddenly disappear from the payroll.
The departments that are going to get cut are, by and large, those that are both very good at forging local or regional links with civic society or business; and which have very good records in bringing in so-called ‘widening participation’ students from non-traditional backgrounds. The taxpayer paid for loads of programmes in those fields too. All that cash will now get poured down the drain.
The present mess suits no-one. Students in some – and by no means all – ‘elite’ institutions are crushed in like sardines. Students in some newer universities get extraordinary access to their lectures in small-group teaching, but their course options shrink alongside numbers.
Most of all, the lack of a national plan, of any sort of rational allocation of student numbers or redundant staff, is a waste of time and resource, not to say our money, and your money. Given the indolence and hostility this government has consistently shown towards universities, that is little surprise.
Glen O’Hara is professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books and articles about modern Britain