4 September 2020

What’s really going on in Britain’s universities?


During every crisis, the X-Ray: that flash of a moment that lights everything up, and exposes the internal structure of what you’re really looking at. So it is now with Britain’s beleaguered universities, heading into a very uncertain teaching year with very little capital of any sort in the bank.

So much heat has been created by ‘debates’ over Higher Education that it is sometimes hard to get at what is actually going on, in a relatively dispassionate way, and what it all means for students, lectures, national politics and the economy. Since all that shouting has actually achieved very little, it’s perhaps best to take a step back and highlight where we actually are right now.

First, the good news: home student recruitment has not collapsed, but is in fact buoyant and seemingly unaffected by the Covid crisis. So-called ‘firm’ offers at the universities candidates themselves have chosen look fairly in line with what we would expect. The fear that home numbers would collapse has not been borne out.

International numbers look rather different, though these fluctuate a lot and we cannot yet say much that is certain about them. All that we can conclude is that these do look likely to be reduced on previous cycles, with international deferrals, for instance, appearing to rise. Since Britain’s universities rely extensively and disproportionately on income from students domiciled outside the European Union, a substantial funding shortfall still seems quite possible.

So dire warnings of a potentially existential crisis for the sector seem overdone. The Government’s recent U-turn on assessing A-Levels via teachers’ assessments will also hugely help some high-grade institutions who feared losing out the most on international income. They can now plug at least some of that gap by recruiting more home students.

But all those numbers still hide some really threatening problems. The first is the strain that the Covid crisis has imposed on relations between the university workforce and management. Many academics and administrators have now been working without a break since March – as have employees in many other sectors – and the chaos around A-Levels was the final straw for many. Some staff are burnt out, depressed and, frankly, adrift.

On top of that is the utterly unknowable situation many teaching staff now find themselves just a few weeks before the start of the new academic year. It is not yet clear who is coming, how they are to be housed, where on earth they are going to be taught and who is going to teach them.

Some universities towards the top end of the traditional hierarchy are now experiencing acute difficulties in this regard: at St Andrews, for instance, a huge influx means the university is being forced to stagger the start of teaching, as well as move lots of it online. At a time when ‘top’ universities seem to be accepting more students than ever, both because they need the cash and because of very high A-Level grades, the prospect of exhausted Russell group staff having to teach round-the-clock still looms.

That mention of online teaching brings us to the next problem: growing concern about bringing very large numbers of students back onto campus during September and October. This is a public health challenge of a different order to teaching local children in schools, both because students are coming from far and wide and because they will mix much more than children when they are away from campus. 

This threat is behind the University and College Union’s recent call (barring a mass testing effort) to teach mostly online during the academic year 2020/21. The appalling example of US campus reopening – met by an immediate rash of closures as Covid spiralled out of control – is before them. The UK caseload of infections is far lower, but the dangers to both university and local communities are more than evident.

The challenge is as intrinsic as it is comparative. It is beginning to dawn on many academics, working flat out all summer on ‘blended’ learning, that they may have to sit in rooms with 15 or 20 undergraduates, not only at some risk of infection but also unable to move, visored and masked, or behind a screen, unable to ask the students to break up into group work – not a good outcome for anyone.  

Distanced communication has also worsened over the summer, as staff have attempted to take at least some leave and grassroots messaging within universities has withered. Instead, many lecturers are faced with near-incomprehensible emails from colleagues they have never even heard of, let alone met, which bear no relation at all to what they have been told within their departments or faculties. 

So what we are left with is a growing sense of foreboding and anger on the part of teaching staff, especially in institutions which are being very aggressive about face-to-face teaching (and its imposition even on older or vulnerable staff). This is aggravated by deep concern about the intensity or otherwise of universities’ contacts with local public health teams, the benchmarks – clear to precisely no-one – as to when they should pivot between face-to-face and online teaching, and the teaching methods they are to adopt in the socially distanced classroom.

Bear in mind that all this comes on top of a long-running dispute about terms and conditions in the workplace, specifically focusing on institutional prejudice on the basis of factors such as ethnicity and gender, an increasingly precarious workforce of younger lecturers who have to live hand-to-mouth in two or three teaching jobs, and a bitter battle over pensions that will get much worse if the economy does not recover quickly and strongly.

All of this will have deep and unforeseeable consequences, and usually not encouraging ones. Looking forward, this crisis of confidence and commitment seems likely to undermine universities’ role in British research and development, regional policy and the transformation of life chances in poorer areas – all cherished objectives in Downing Street.

The Government’s leading strategist, Dominic Cummings, likes to think of himself as a kind of hard-nosed reforming seer, drawing on a sense of purpose and drive akin to that of Otto von Bismarck, modern Germany’s first Chancellor in the 1870s and 1880s. Bismarck saw that small doses of chauvinism abroad, some cultural bust-ups and a big offer on welfare might unite a young country around a new national project: today’s interventionist, statist Tories and their allies spy a similar opportunity.

Cummings’ Bismarckian ethos has failed him when it comes to universities, which should play a central role in any more ordered and strategic economic system, but on this occasion – as so often before – have been left to sink or swim.

Westminster and Whitehall could have intervened, imposed a universal testing drive to open safely, provided guidance on teaching standards, supported universities financially rather than force them to fight each other on the nebulous basis of how much face-to-face teaching they can provide. Uninterested or distracted, they didn’t bother. The result is a mess.

This government desperately wants to raise research spending and ‘level up’ social and physical infrastructure across the country. The failure to work out a proper plan for HE in the age of Covid, and the A-Level debacle, shows them instead going in the other direction. 

The lack of grip from ministers suggests they are slipping away from their objectives, not driving towards them. Financial crises and (perhaps) campus Covid outbreaks may result. Politicians can blame regulators, lecturers and students all they want – for now.  Sooner or later, though, the lack of any real sense of the possible and the likely, the tactical and the strategic, will catch up with them.

For higher education, in the near term, that could mean a potential winter Covid crisis or the failure of a clutch of providers – though it is more likely to mean a long series of bitter battles that staff, students and their families will not forget in a hurry. Taken together, that amounts to nearly 2.5 million people and their dependents.

More fundamentally, the chance to reshape the economy around highly skilled jobs, research and development, regional investment hubs, better infrastructure and a truly flexible workforce will have been lost. And if universities’ grey years are behind them, and bleaker ones lie ahead, their employees will certainly not be the only ones to suffer.

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Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books on modern Britain, including most recently The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017).

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.