Light at the End of the Tunnel… or Just a Tunnel

Helen Watson, Registrar and Secretary at Goldsmiths, University of London, reviews the Government’s guidance on restructuring Higher Education in response to COVID-19. But are they more preoccupied with the politics than the fiscality of the situation?

Everyone is very busy at the moment working out how to re-open and manage a socially distanced campus.

Therefore, you may have been saving the Government’s guidance on the Establishment of a Higher Education Restructuring Regime in Response to COVID-19 for summer holiday reading.

Especially if you are confident that your institution isn’t one of the thirteen likely to end up with negative reserves, as mentioned in the recent IFS briefing note.

“The thirteen.”

It sounds vaguely Game of Thrones, or perhaps Killing Eve, depending upon your frame of cultural reference.

However, wherever you sit in the “Will we be here in five years?” pecking order, the document provides useful insight into the Government’s perceptions of the sector.

Here are ten elements of the guidance which might reflect broader political, rather than fiscal, pre-occupations.

1. Senior Staff Pay

Restructuring plans commissioned through an Independent Business Review (IBR) are expecting to pay specific attention to this matter, among others.

If any institution were paying its senior executives so much that this salary bill was affecting its very sustainability, I imagine we’d have heard about it already.

Overall, institutional spend on senior staff pay is a very small proportion of the whole.

2. Free speech

Financial support requires assurance that providers “are fully complying with their legal duties to secure freedom of speech under section 43 Education (No. 2) Act 1986.”

Of course, one would hope that any recipient of a major government loan would be compliant with all its legal and compliance obligations, of which this is just one. Freedom of speech is included in the OfS’ public interest governance principles which apply to all registered providers.

It could be noted that the specific “problem” of universities fettering freedom of speech has been more frequently cited than evidenced by government ministers in recent years.

3. Burden of bureaucracy

Administrative spend has to be reviewed as part of the IBR. That seems fair enough and to be expected.

The Ministerial Forward, which requires a “strip back [of] bureaucracy, allowing academics to focus on the front-line” might seem somewhat counter-intuitive to academic colleagues. They would be required to pick up the range of responsibilities left in the wake of that stripping back.

4. Role of the Office for Students

The guidance claims the Government is “actively considering how to reduce the burden of bureaucracy imposed by Government and regulators.”

Some of us might feel we’ve been here before. Meanwhile, the scheme itself is to be held within the DfE rather than being administered through the OfS.

5. Students Unions

We are discouraged from “subsidising niche activism and campaigns.”

The 1994 Education Act sets out Governing Bodies’ responsibilities for Students’ Unions, including:

  • Ensuring and reviewing a written constitution
  • Ensuring fair elections
  • Scrutinising spend and approving budgets

It seems unlikely that any governing body has permitted funding to their SU to the extent that the very autonomy of the institution as a whole may consequently be under threat.

6. Approved providers only

Government restructuring is only open to fee cap (approved) providers. It is also only available after all other financing options (including other government backed loans) have been exhausted.

So much for Jo Johnson’s level playing field.

7. Graduate Outcomes

The IBR would look to re-focus provision on “high quality” courses.

“High quality” is defined as courses with low dropout rates and large proportions of graduates finding highly-skilled employment. This means employment “that develops skills that are aligned to local and national economic and social employment needs.”

No scope is offered for negotiation around that definition.

8. Level 4 and 5 provision

Restructuring plans would look at whether any provision could be offered at sub-degree level, and possibly transferred to a local FE College.

9. Regional focus

There are three main policy objectives:

  • Supporting the role HE providers play in regional and local economies through delivery of courses “aligned with economic and social need.”
  • Protecting the welfare of current students.
  • Preserving strategically important research (see below).

The sense of higher education institutions as national and international recruiters of students and collaborators in research seems to be lost.

However, arguably the institutions most exposed to risk through COVID-19 are those with an international profile.

10. Research

For the avoidance of doubt, research is about the “science base” unless it is about “business and industry in the regional economy.”


We can expect to hear more about some of these pre-occupations when the government responds to the Augar review in the Autumn.

In the meantime, enjoy your summer holiday reading.