The pandemic, and the fall-off in international student fees which will come as a consequence, has tipped an already unsustainable model of university expansion into crisis.
It will speed up marketisation, and bring on cuts harder and faster than they would have come before.
The government has brought forward some payments due to universities to avoid a cash-flow crisis, but as yet has refused to provide extra funding to fill what could be a £1.7bn gap.
It is unlikely to want to see universities closed outright, especially in marginal constituencies. But some of the more vulnerable institutions might be forced into mergers with those in stronger financial positions, with the risk of campus closures a few years down the line. The Tories will want to see the market “working”, and won’t care too much about students who need local universities, or universities more oriented to people without a traditional academic background.
Many universities are already freezing recruitment and refusing to renew fixed-term contracts. In practice that will mean increased workload for permanent staff. In some universities, like Warwick, where over a third of teaching staff are on fixed-term contracts, the effect could be drastic. On top of that, if (as seems likely) social-distancing rules are still operating in September and October, universities will not be able to reopen in the usual way. Usually there’s a two-year run-in time for developing an online programme, so moving even some teaching online will bring a huge extra workload.
Universities are also losing out on income from summer conferences, accommodation and catering. The longer this continues, the more likely it is that catering and security staff will face redundancies.
Some universities are more dependent on international student fees, and have built up higher levels of debt, than others. The Russell Group (the more “prestigious” of the older universities) will be more immediately affected by a drop in international student numbers. The risk is that they will seek to compensate by recruiting more UK students. They have agreed with the government to limit this to a 5% rise each. But multiplied through several institutions this could devastate the last in the chain.
For example, along the M4 corridor, expansion at Bristol will hit numbers at Cardiff, which will look instead to recruit students who would have gone to Swansea, which in turn will target applicants to Cardiff Met or UWTSD, putting programmes at those institutions at risk.
Sunderland University was already planning to cut its humanities courses in favour of an “employment-focused” curriculum before the pandemic began. In Australia, where universities have been even more dependent on international student fees, the University of Tasmania plans to cut three-quarters of its courses.
It’s said that if you added up all the expansion plans of all vice-chancellors in the last decade or so, they would need one million more students than were actually available to finance them. And there have been some particularly notorious cases of universities getting it wrong.
At Swansea University, the vice-chancellor and dean of the management school were sacked for gross misconduct and allegations of bribery referred to the Serious Fraud Office following an internal investigation into the tendering process for a £200 million “Wellness Village” project. The University of Chester has been told by planning inspectors to close down new teaching facilities at the Thornton Science Park after failing to secure the correct permission for the expansion. The site is considered inappropriate for students because of its proximity to an oil refinery.
There are, however, efforts to stop the cuts. The Corona Contract initiative, started by postgraduates and casual teaching employees at Birkbeck University, is campaigning for a two-year extension on all fixed-term contracts.
Crisis Justice at Sussex (a joint campaign by campus unions) is also calling for contract extensions, and for a maximum 6:1 pay ratio on campus.
Branches of the UCU [the academic-staff union] are beginning to meet online, as are the national committees. The pandemic hit just as many universities were coming to the end of strike action over the USS pension scheme and the “Four Fights” (over pay, casualisation, equalities and workload). Those ballot mandates have now expired and it isn’t clear that UCU will be able to organise any official industrial action while extensive working-from-home continues, given that most UCU members are registered with the union at their work, not home, addresses.
But the demands should be clear: government support for universities to save jobs, and no course closures.
Leverage to win them exists. In the medium term, there are still going to be students. In recessions, generally, more people seek university education.
Already a union campaign has pushed Durham University to drop plans to cut the number of modules on offer next year by 25%.