Update on Higher Education Funding Policy in England

With many recent changes affecting funding in Higher Education, Helen Watson, Chief Operating Officer at City, University of London, reflects on what this means for universities in England.

In our last blog on funding policy, Melanie Rimmer, Director of Strategic Planning at Cardiff University, shared her reflections on the similarities and differences between the English and Welsh HE funding systems.

That was in February. Time flies when you’re having fun…. Now, six months and one Prime Minister, five Secretaries of State for Education and two higher and further education ministers further on, I thought it might be interesting to revisit Melanie’s thoughts. A lot can change in six months. So, do the differences between the Welsh and the English higher education systems look more stark in the light of what we know about the latest UK government administration’s intentions for tertiary education? Or are the challenges we are facing on a national scale going to push them into closer alignment?

Melanie’s blog delineated a Welsh political context markedly different to the mood music we have become accustomed to from Westminster. There was a sense of perhaps a closer and more collaborative relationship between Government, regulator and Universities than we enjoy in England and an absence on the Welsh side of the border of government-led stoking of ‘culture wars’.

What has changed

At the end of June, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill received its second reading in the House of Lords.  The day before, the then Minister of State for Further and Higher Education wrote to Vice-Chancellors in England linking the passage of the bill to an invitation to give ‘careful consideration’ to whether ongoing involvement in external assurance and benchmarking schemes, such as the Race Equality Charter, is compatible with the promotion of free speech. The letter’s final flourish is to note that, while universities are autonomous bodies which must make their own decisions in these regards, they should remember that they receive substantial government funding.

In July, OfS published its latest summary of Prevent data returns, an opportunity for the current Minister to comment on the incidental information the returns reveal about the number of events or speakers refused on campus. And the current consultation on changes to the NSS includes consideration of whether to include a question concerning whether individuals feel free to express ideas, opinions and beliefs. The culture wars continue, and this is not a benign context in which to make the case for university funding, let alone alongside other pressing government priorities.

Writing six months ago, Melanie noted that Home tuition fees in Wales have been frozen at £9,000 per annum for a decade. In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland fees rose to £9,250 in 2017 but have been frozen since. There seems little prospect of either cap being lifted. As inflation and rising energy costs bite across the UK, a number of institutions are likely to struggle. University funding seems unlikely to be a government priority. The new Secretary of State for Education, Kit Malthouse, does not have a record of speaking on higher education. Liz Truss made eye catching assertions about Oxbridge admissions in the course of her leadership campaign but was silent on university, and research funding.  Andrea Jenkyns, appointed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Skills, Further and Higher Education in July 2022, has commented in the media on free speech, spoken in the Commons on BTEC reform, and on Monday 5th September announced a temporary reduction in student loan interest rates, but her views on university funding seem so far not to be in the public domain.  Melanie noted the help the Welsh government gave to institutions during the pandemic – as operating costs grow, similar support directly to universities continues to seem unlikely in England.

Cost pressures

But the most immediate financial crisis hitting higher education is that of the cost of living, which will have a profound effect on staff and students across the UK. In the context of frozen fees and sharply rising costs, creating the financial margin necessary to adequately support the people we employ and educate will affect every aspect of our operations.  This is reflected in UKRI’s recent announcement of an increase in its minimum PGR stipend by £2000 for 2022-23. Other funders may in turn reflect this, but of course it makes no difference to the many self-funded PhD students.

As the value of the student loan falls to its lowest level in seven years, Universities UK has issued a call to the new government for increased student support. Among the measures called for is the reinstatement of the maintenance grant for those in greatest need as well as additional hardship funding. The vast majority of students do not have access to means tested benefits, and as UUK notes in 2022-23, the maximum loan entitlement is more than £1,000 below the National Minimum Wage. The Welsh government already offers students a combination of maintenance loans and grants, as Melanie noted in her blog, as does the Scottish government.  But arguably what students need is the cash to maintain a reasonable standard of living now, rather than a lower graduating debt which may remain notional if a student’s earning trajectory is such that it is never paid off in full.

UUK noted that over half of students in a recent poll by Savanta ComRes said that living costs might prevent them from continuing their studies. Of course there is a direct financial effect on universities if students drop out because of the cost of living. But we have a responsibility to consider how we can support students to achieve to the best of their ability on their courses, not simply survive. Nearly three quarters of students polled also said that the cost of living was affecting their mental health. People can’t fulfill their potential in these circumstances. As most of us in AHUA are heads of administration for charities of which students are the chief beneficiaries, this should make us very worried indeed.