Before I begin, I should lay my cards on the table. Obviously, I’m somewhat lacking objectivity on the matter at hand. As the more eagle-eyed reader may have already surmised from that fact that this article is, indeed, published in a student newspaper, I am, myself, a student. As such, I have skin in the game of university survival, so to speak.
By now we’re all familiar with Sally Mapstone’s email (whether we read it ourselves or simply voted in a St Polldrews’ Facebook post on the matter) which laid out the fact that the university had already taken a £25 million hit as a direct result of the crisis. But it appears that our own dear institution isn’t the only university under immense financial strain. So much so, that the higher education umbrella group, Universities UK (UUK), made a direct appeal to unlikely heartthrob and chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak. The organisation made an unprecedented appeal for government aid, stating that without “proactive support” from the government some UK universities face financial failure while others would come close to failure forcing them to scale back their research or to reduce provisions for their students.
According to the FT, the UUK appeal calls for the equivalent of a £2 billion bailout package, doubling government research funding and assisting universities that financially rely on high numbers of international students, as well as for help to finance the support of retention and recruitment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The universities most often cited as being those most at risk of financial ruin are Bolton, Sunderland, and Wolverhampton. However, the Guardian singled out our very own St Andrews as one of the universities facing a dire financial “black hole”.
Despite this, the FT reported that the appeal fell on “deaf ears” when proposed to the Treasury, and caused a split amongst ministers, according to the Guardian. The Treasury’s opposition is due to their stance that the UK’s higher education sector should not be treated any differently from other hard-pressed industries.
The Treasury appears to be missing the crucial point that the university sector is fundamentally different from other sectors and thus deserves to be treated as such. And, I would like to think that this fact has never been more obvious than now. The higher education sector is a pillar of society: when one member of society attains a university degree, society, as a whole, benefits – whether that degree is in Nursing, producing the NHS workers risking their lives on the front line, or in Film Studies, whose grads produce the Netflix Shows that we have all been binging while housebound. Surely, this crisis has only served to highlight the importance of the role of these institutions, alongside the importance of previously underappreciated job roles such as supermarket workers and social carers to name but a few.
Shockingly, all three of the universities singled out as being financially vulnerable produce graduates with degrees in the medical profession – graduates who are vital to the functioning of society in peace times, never mind in times of pandemic. The government simply cannot allow these institutions which produce the workers that the country is currently relying on to pull the us all through the pandemic to fail.
I saw one article that questioned if universities were “too big to fail”, drawing comparisons between universities and the banks that were bailed out in 2008 – it appears the political establishment hasn’t always been against sector-specific bailouts. However, to make this comparison is to, once again, miss the fundamental difference between universities and other sectors. The calls to bail out a university differ from the bailout of the banking sector or the call to bail out Virgin from Britain’s most loved businessman turned cartoon villain – Richard Branson. Both banks and Branson run for-profit industries, whose ultimate goal is to line the pockets of their shareholders. Universities, however, do not have shareholders and are run as non-profits, meaning that their education and research isn’t a means to pay back its investors, but are instead the end in themselves. Indeed, Emma Hardly, Shadow Minister for universities, acknowledged this, stating: “Our universities are not just businesses and should not be treated as such.”
Furthermore, can this government not see the bitter irony in relying on university produced research while allowing certain institutions to fail? Surely, it has never been more blindingly obvious than now that we should protect the nation’s research bases that are playing, and will continue to play, such a key role in our recovery. The appeal from UUK included a call for “targeted support to protect and sustain courses that meet the national need for key public sector workers, maintain high-cost STEM provision and facilitate planned growth in 2020-21 and 2021-22 in key areas such as nursing, healthcare, medicine [and] teaching” – and I think, you’ll agree that meeting these calls is nothing but vital for the future of our country. Of course, UUK isn’t driving a one-sided bargain. They are willing to make their own amendments, offering to slash budgets and cap student recruitment.
My thoughts can perhaps best be summed up in the words of Benjamin Franklin: “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Sunak is said to review UUK’s request over the coming days, despite the Treasury’s initial unreceptiveness, and I hope that he heeds Franklin’s words. Even if by the time that you’re reading this the government has agreed to an industry-specific bailout, the fact that the future of our universities was up for debate in the first place, especially during a time where our country has never relied on their work more, paints a dire picture of how we approach higher education in this country.