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The Tories’ mindless vandalism of higher education

Britain’s universities and colleges are on the brink because of government policies

Thanks to the Tories, there is now an urgent need for intervention to prevent long-term damage to Britain’s universities. Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty

One of the great things about British universities is that they have experts on pretty much any subject you can think of… including British universities. 

If you want to see how bad things have got in higher education – which departments are closing, how many staff are being made redundant, the courses that are no more – Queen Mary’s University, London have created a website that details it all.

“This sector is vital to the country’s future and the vandalism to it unconscionable,” it says, before a long and deeply depressing list of the damage done.

Why are so many universities and colleges shedding staff, subjects, and courses at a worrying rate? Simple: They are running out of money. 

The solution is simple too: Give them more money. But instead, this government is running an undeclared war against further education. 

There are 142 universities in the UK. They are a huge part of our economy, and one of the few sectors of the economy which actually is world-beating, as Boris Johnson liked to say (repeatedly, about everything). 

Four of the top 20 universities in the world are in the UK and the research and development that higher education produces is of huge benefit to the economy. On top of all that, higher education is great for the economy in its own right. As a general rule, the greater number of well-educated people you have, the better your economy will perform. 

Now this valuable sector is in crisis, and no one seems willing to do anything about it. 

Universities make their money in three main ways: Student fees from British students, student fees from foreign students and government grants. 

Student fees have however been frozen for years now and inflation has eaten into their value. As Mark Corver co-founder and MD of the higher education analysis and insights firm

DataHE points out, the legal cap on what UK universities can charge domestic students is still £9,250 but it has hardly moved since 2012.

This means inflation has pushed “the real value of the £9,250 legal fee cap in England to a new low of £5,929 in 2012 pounds. The tuition fee would now be over £14,000 if it had tracked the RPI.”

So universities are now losing money on every British student they take on (things are different in Scotland, where the government still pays student fees). Unfortunately there is no political appetite for increasing the fees. Better to let universities suffer rather than charging students more.

Universities have therefore become very reliant on foreign students paying huge fees to subsidise the money they lose educating British students. They pay more than double what domestic students do.

Last year 680,000 overseas students were in the UK. They account for a  fifth of UK university funds now come from overseas students, with tuition fees from overseas students increasing by 71% in just six years. It is pretty much the only income source that universities can increase by themselves, and thus universities fight to bring more and more of them in to balance the books.

But now, in an act of mindless vandalism and political panic, the government has decided to try to bring down immigration numbers by making it less attractive for foreign students to come to the UK and study. They are trying to create a hostile environment for the very people who keep further education’s head above the water. 

They have been spreading dangerous rumours about foreigners using education to get into the country and then disappearing. They have stopped dependents coming on a student’s visa and started spreading total nonsense about foreigners with worse qualifications squeezing out British students from places at university. 

Just like the claim that immigration is a threat to the NHS rather than being what keeps it going, the government is undermining further education permanently in order to try to hit a self-invented, pointless, target for the annual number of immigrants.  

The fact that foreign students fund so much of our higher education sector is lost on the party of business, as is the fact that educating hundreds of thousands of foreign students a year and then sending them home with British qualifications, British tastes and hopefully an anglophile attitude for life, is a win-win situation.

The third source of income for universities is from the government in the shape of research and teaching grants. The completely mad decisions around Brexit meant British universities were kicked out of Horizon, the pan-European EU university fund scheme.

We are now back in but the damage has been huge. Universities lost hundreds of millions in funding. Although UK government grants for research seem to have kept up with inflation, teaching grants haven’t and have plummeted too. Another massive squeeze on the sector’s income stream. 

The damage all this is likely to cause was highlighted by a report into further education by the consultants at accounting giants PWC for Universities UK earlier this year. It found that “If the growth rate for international students were to decrease by 20 percentage points relative to university forecasts in 2024–25, 80% of universities could be in deficit in 2025–26.” And that “Even if international student numbers remain the same from 2024–25, without declining, 27% of institutions could be in deficit in 2025–26”. 

The result has been the closing of subjects, courses and departments as vice-chancellors try to cut back on “unprofitable” courses, although critics point out that this just spreads the institutions’ fixed costs over fewer departments making them less “profitable” too. 

Cutting fixed costs would make more sense, including the huge salaries of many vice-chancellors, but the basic fact is that the government is strangling the higher education sector on purpose. 

A combination of self-defeating austerity and a pathetic, myopic, obsession with headline immigration figures is and will continue to do immense harm to one of the few “jewels in the crown” of the British economy.

In short, the further education sector is in danger of going bust if the government continues with its mad policies.  

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