A Ghost Issue in the General Election  

In this monthly Director’s Note, Christopher Newfield discusses the funding crisis faced by universities and the failure of Britain’s political parties to face it.

Christopher Newfield

Feature image by Vadim Sherbakov (via Unsplash).

ISRF have launched a full-scale study of UK university research funding that will be finished by the end of the calendar year. We’re motivated by our concern that British universities are increasingly unable to support research time and conditions for their academic staff, particularly outside of the science and engineering disciplines.

I’ve been unable to find commentators who think the probable incoming Labour government will rebuild the university system. Its funding problems are the structural effects of deliberate government policy choices after 2010. Yet no structural remedies are on offer, either in Labour pledges or in statements issued by higher education officials, like this hollow manifesto from the Russell Group.

One might hope that Britain’s most powerful universities would advocate for the entire sector. This seems not to be happening either.

For example, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Deborah Prentice, used her recent debut in the Financial Times to tout her university’s unique services to British business. She called for “a favourable environment when it comes to patents, licences, spin-outs, industry collaborations, venture funding.” Her wish is to make Cambridge the global “leader in translating research for economic impact.” She omitted intellectual, cognitive, educational, and cultural aims from her discussion, thus miseducating FT readers about the full private and social effects of higher education.

The Conservative government promised to make Britain a global science superpower. But every wealthy and middle-income country in the world is engaged in the science race. If Britain has an obvious intellectual superpower it is as a cultural superpower, particularly in the creative arts that the Conservatives have been busily defunding and disparaging as woke.

World greatness is expensive, and post-colonial Britain will need to spend its own money to pay for it. It should spend some of this money fully supporting its amazing arts sectors. Great support for higher education is part and parcel. Labour is not currently set to do this.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has posted its Election Briefing 2024, and one figure, reproduced from an Office of Students report, summarizes the funding story.

Figure reproduced from Higher Education Policy Institute.

British universities lost a billion pounds in 2021-22 teaching home students. They lost £5 billion a year of their own funds conducting research. Its gains on alternative revenue streams like student accommodation are minor. Its only big revenue winner is its fees from overseas students. The sector ended that year over £2 billion in the hole, and anti-immigrant policy is likely to dig that hole deeper.

Obviously the situation is not sustainable. A smallish group of wealthy universities can continue to subsidize high levels of research with internal funds. These continue to attract overseas students and have private wealth to backfill shortfalls. At the same time, at least 50 universities are actively involved in staff and programme cuts. The Office of Students found that “In 2022-23, 43 providers (16 per cent of the sector) reported surpluses that exceeded 10 per cent of income, whereas 93 providers (35 per cent of the sector) reported deficits.”

This is the kind of permanent fiscal crisis that I’ve long chronicled in U.S. public universities. Last month I discussed a major side effect of this system—the starvation of research in non-STEM disciplines that do not get much outside funding to begin with. The crisis is induced by deliberate government policy. It should always be fixed. It never is.

The only fix that higher ed leaders are now willing to propose is an increase in home student fees. This assumes the British public opposes increased public funding, but that now appears to be an outdated view.

The call for higher fees also assumes that home students can pay and borrow more. The evidence instead suggests they can’t.

HEPI’s own calculations show massive financial gaps between living costs and maximum maintenance loans.

Figure reproduced from Higher Education Policy Institute.

Where do students find £6,500-£10,500 per year on top of £9,250 in fees while they are full-time students? And how do they minimize their exposure to maintenance loans after the Conservatives cancelled grants for even the poorest students? (In July 2015, George Osborne cast maintenance grants as a half-way house to a “life on benefits” as a reason to cancel them.)

A primary source is paid work while at university. This competes directly with studying. It reduces learning, thus partially defeating the point of attending university in the first place.

The tripling of fee caps, the tripling of individual debt to over £45,000 for 2020 graduates, the regular sacrifices during term time (Figure 4), the equation of present learning with future earning, the shift of study from an adventure in discovery to a financial burden: policy has changed the character of higher education and dampened student feeling about getting new knowledge and capabilities.

What will fix this? Putting student voices front and centre would greatly improve the state of public knowledge and the sector’s arguments for rebuilding.

Sector leaders will then need to engage in serious, sustained political battling with the government for the strongest version of the university.

I was reminded of the need for determined struggle while attending a London conference this month. It was hosted by Fobzu, or Friends of Birzeit University, which has become an advocacy group for Palestinian higher education overall. At their conference last year, they were focused on promoting links with the remarkable range of institutions that Palestinians have built since the 1970s, despite all the obstacles imposed on the education sector by a decades-old military occupation. One slide listed 12 higher education institutions in Gaza.

By this month’s conference, one year later, the Israeli military has severely damaged or destroyed them all.

The first panel of speakers, all academic staff representing four of the largest universities in Gaza, chronicled the damage and the dying—the president of the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), Prof. Sofyan Taya, was killed in his home with his family; 100 other professors have been killed; over 4,300 students have been killed; over 100 cultural figures and journalists have been killed. And yet the dead remembered and their deaths mourned was prelude to descriptions of the rebuilding to come.

Whatever happens, the senior scholars from Gaza said, the universities will not die. Whatever happens, the students are there and will be there. Whatever happens, the priority must be to support the institutions to ensure the future of higher education in Gaza. We know the priority of our colleagues here is to sustain the dignity of your colleagues in Gaza. You can only do this by helping to support the universities directly. We must tell you the students are there. Whatever happens, they said, the universities will continue. Al Azhar University has already resumed online teaching, even as the war continues. IUG and Al Aqsa will also start soon. We started the universities in tents. After the war, we will start the universities in tents again.

British universities have been largely silent on the destruction of their Gazan colleagues’ institutions. They should commit to supporting the rebuilding of the demolished universities in Gaza and provide immediate support to them, partnering to provide much needed assistance.

In addition, the academic leadership in this country could learn from the Gazan example. If we had a small portion of the courage and the strength of Gazan academics in facing our own far less unfriendly government, we would very quickly put British universities back on solid footing to create knowledge for the world.

Christopher Newfield

Christopher Newfield is the Director of Research at the Independent Social Research Foundation in London. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Newfield has recently published two books on the metrics of higher education: Metrics That Matter: Counting What’s Really Important to College Students (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023) and The Limits of the Numerical: The Abuses and Uses of Quantification (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022). He is currently conducting research on the nature and effects of literary knowledge.