UK Universities and Covid-19: Time for Cooperation, not Competition

UK Universities and Covid-19: Time for Cooperation, not Competition

John Holmwood

The Government’s policy for higher education in England (and to a lesser extent in the other devolved jurisdictions in the United Kingdom) has been to create a market in higher education. Nowhere has the government – or, indeed, university leadership – articulated the public value of higher education and the social good that it might serve. Home students are seen as consumers of degree programmes and investors in human capital where the value of their education is defined by its returns on the labour market (as measured by the size of salary). Overseas students, especially in taught postgraduate programmes are charged fees at the rate the market will bear and that rate is then proposed as evidence that universities are ‘subsidising’ home students where fees are capped (albeit at a level that makes their fees higher on average than other comparable countries)

In a time of pandemic crisis, this barren view is revealed as bankrupt and university leadership revealed to be wanting. Many of the essential workers to be supported to stay at work are those in supposedly ‘low value’ areas of work – health and social care, food distribution, school teaching and support. Many of those who are vulnerable to the virus and are asked to self-isolate will be supported by the voluntary work of those involved in charities and newly-formed mutual aid groups. Certainly, the country has not been calling out for the graduates of ‘high value’ courses in finance and marketing. They have, however, lamented the disruption of the entertainment and instruction provided by the arts and creative industries staffed by the graduates of crudely maligned ‘low value’ courses described as not essential to economic growth in ‘global Britain plc’.

Universities, themselves, have been on the back foot throughout the crisis. Their conversion into revenue maximising entities means that their primary concern has been how to protect home and overseas student fee revenue. Some have issued bonds like other corporations and large numbers have built mass debt positions from unbridled expansion of their numbers and newly built accommodation and teaching blocks. Despite it being clear that the student population was likely to be a particularly fertile ground for the virus, due both to the movement of students, their communal living circumstances and their sociability, universities were slow to restrict activities. Just as government has been ‘nudged’ into action by the public, so vice chancellors were nudged to action by students and staff.

There has been a rush to provide online courses and declarations of business as (un)usual. However, it is clear that this will be a pale reflection of what was previously provided. If sustained into the long term it will risk universities being displaced by more efficient dedicated for-profit online providers, with a lower cost base. Indirect online teaching may satisfy student concerns over the short term. However, it is unlikely that it can be sustained into a new academic year. The issue, then, will not be how to manage a temporary crisis, but how to manage the disruption to the longer term organisation of higher education.

Universities have sought to maximise revenue and to do so in a situation of expanding student numbers and the absence of a cap on their recruitment. This has led to a situation where some universities have gained student numbers – and, thus, revenue – at the expense of other universities. However, it has also made them reliant on overseas student income that is likely to be severely reduced. There are calls, as well, to delay the start of the new academic year, each of which will hit each university’s bottom line.

These implications are not surprising. They are the logical consequences of abandoning a public university model. Throughout the process of the marketisation of higher education, the government has declared that it is sanguine about the possibility of a university failing, as if, failure is not itself a consequence of its own policy of competition. Now we face the possibility of a significant number of failures with severe consequences for employment in the towns in which such institutions are located, as well as for students seeking access to local institutions.

The recent strike by UCU and other unions has also been about the consequences of marketisation for working conditions in higher education. The polarisation between institutions has been matched by polarisation within institutions, as universities deal with fluctuating student number by increasing the number of staff on temporary and zero-hour contracts, or by outsourcing. Thus, post-92 institutions report a shift of colleagues from research and teaching contracts to teaching only contracts, while Russell Group universities report some of the highest increases in staff on casual contracts.

Because of the shift to online teaching and the fact that fee income is paid in advance, university staff have been shielded from immediate concerns about unemployment and reduction in income, just as the shift from government grants to direct payment of fees by students through loans, shielded us from austerity.

But we cannot avoid the financial consequences of Covid-19 as the routine injection of fees will decline significantly after September 2020. If the start of the academic year is postponed until January 2021, can we expect the furlough of university staff and the application by universities to the government’s fund to support 80% of salaries up to £2500 per month? How will universities address the inequalities of contract and salary within universities. Will vice-chancellors volunteer a reduction in their own salaries? Will there be a shift to basing FEC for research grants on  the professorial minimum salary, rather than actual salary, since the latter has encouraged the increase in the latter, on the expectation that costs may be recovered externally from funding agencies?

The answer for universities is cooperation, not competition. We need to ensure the distribution of students across institutions, rather than competing for them. We need to ensure that students get access to the best online material – for example, from the Open University – by providing our teaching material free online (just as we are now required to do for our research to make it available for commercial exploitation). We need to withdraw from unnecessary activities like the REF, the TEF and the KEF.

More fundamentally, we need to re-orient our universities to public service and their communities outside the instrumental rationale for ‘impact’. Most of all, we need a radical reset of universities to serve public purposes and to give a clear message that the need for an inclusive economy begins within each of our organisations. Vice-Chancellors are rightly responding to an immediate crisis, but it is also urgent that they respond with leadership to the longer term crisis facing universities.


John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology at Nottingham University.

Image: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images