Turmoil in Britain

In some ways it is gratifying that higher education is still capable of causing such excitement as we are now witnessing in the UK, and indeed in Ireland. But it has to be asked where all this is leading.

Let me not focus on the events of yesterday in London – the vote in the House of Commons, and the accompanying protests and incidents on the streets of the city. Let me turn instead to the information published earlier in the week by UCU (the University and College Union). In order, I imagine, to help make their point about the impact of under-funding and the increase in tuition fees, the union published a wholly different type of league table of ‘universities at risk’. According to the document itself, this is what it is intended to show:

‘The University and College Union (UCU) has analysed the government’s university funding proposals and discovered which institutions are most at risk of impact from the proposals. Universities at risk not only examines which institutions are most at risk, but also looks at how local economies will be affected by the government’s radical proposals.’

The union used research done by a team at Stratchclyde University for this purpose, which aims not just to create a table of universities deemed to be in danger of collapse, but also to show how such a collapse would affect the local economy. By way of illustration they say:

‘The impact on the local community of a failure by Sheffield Hallam to recoup the lost income would be substantial. Every £1m in income lost by Sheffield Hallam would lead to a combined loss to the regional economy of £2m, according to the regional multiplier formula created by the Strathclyde researchers in their work on the economic impact of higher education.’

I can’t quite help wondering whether Sheffield Hallam, or its UCU members on the staff, welcome that particular example, but you get the point. Funding cuts have an onward impact beyond the universities.

Having then explained the methodology underpinning their league table, the union produce a list of at risk institutions in four categories: (1) very high level of impact from the Browne proposals (i.e. universities at ‘very high’ risk of institutional failure); (2) ‘high level’ of risk; and (3) ‘high medium’ level of risk. This is a league table you don’t want to be in.

There are four universities listed as being subject to ‘very high’ risk: Bishop Grosseteste University College, Lincoln; Edge Hill University; Newman University College; Norwich University College of the Arts. These are not perhaps household names (though I know the first very well, as it was a linked college of Hull University when I was there). However, the ‘high risk’ list contains 23 universities, including some prominent regional universities. The ‘high medium’ risk list contains 22 names, which interestingly includes the Open University.

Is this table a good idea? The immediate risks inherent in such an approach became obvious on Wednesday evening when UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt was backed into a corner on television and had to deal with the persistent questioning of the interviewer why the ‘at risk’ universities, as they were clearly not satisfying demand, should not just all be closed. Something tells me that the institutions listed there may not be all that happy about the exercise, either. The list could take on the character of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I have little doubt that a small number of English universities are at risk, but I doubt that 49 of them are. There is a possibility right now that the collective scaremongering of parts of the sector will have a highly counterproductive effect. I also have serious reservations about the wisdom of actually naming the allegedly at risk institutions. After all, the government isn’t likely to change course in a hurry, and so the immediate impact of the table is to undermine the institutions named in it, potentially for example affecting their creditworthiness and their ability to raise funds or donations.

As it happens, the more I consider the fine print of the Browne proposals, the more sceptical I am becoming about whether they are appropriate. I still favour realistic tuition fees – there really is no alternative – but the asset stripping of the humanities is, in my view, crazy. But this needs to be debated calmly and rationally. Putting out loud cries about university failures (even if correct) will not help one bit; and neither, for that matter, will violence in central London. Those involved in these campaigns should not just act, they also need to think.

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15 Comments on “Turmoil in Britain”

  1. Vincent Says:

    This is not designed to scare the Government but the Lib-Dem part of it. They are disproportionately in Uni’ towns. This White Paper is a suicide note and the vote will trigger one of the longest deaths-throes in history, finishing what Lloyd-George started.

  2. Derbie Says:

    “The list could take on the character of a self-fulfilling prophesy” : This was also my thought.
    I suspect that some prospective students may see these tables and avoid the risky universities. This will have direct results in their position.
    However this list seems like a reverse league table. The beter positioned universities are low risk and vice versa.

  3. Mike Nolan Says:

    The UCU report is fundamentally flawed and doesn’t take into account many real world factors like growth or recent balance sheets. In Edge Hill’s case at least one of the variables was just plain wrong when compared to audited accounts.

    I don’t think the flawed nature of this “study” can be emphasised too much. The UCU clearly have an agenda that they’re trying to promote but it damages their cause, and the institutions that employ their members when they come out with stuff like this.

  4. copernicus Says:

    Unlike Ireland, who are at best deceptive in their attitude to tuition fee, England is forthright about the need to face up to the reality. Most of you are reacting to the reports without much knowledge of the sector in England as it exists currently today. As for Libdems taking a hit in elections, there may a short term problem there, but then the public do not support the students, and hence the outcome may not be that dire. The notion that the Libdems are going to be obliterated is stuff and nonsense. Any one who believes what UCU says loses objectivity. As for humanities, I agree with the current government approach and the term “asset stripping” is far too emotive and if I may say so is nonsensical.

    • I have no animus against the Lib Dems, but they will be massacred, not necessarily because of the tuition fee issue (which will be forgotten by most voters by the time an election is due), but because that is the lot of a junior coalition partner. They get blamed for everything that goes wrong, but will be able to point to very little that went well for which they were visibly responsible. That’s the way the world turns, I’m afraid.

      As for England being ‘forthright’, I wonder. The issue of fees was tackled by Tony Blair, but at the time against resistance from almost all sides. Cameron has now followed suit, but there is no mass movement to support him in this. Introducing fees means removing a middle class benefit. The middle classes fight like crazy when you do that.

      As for the humanities, you say you support the government approach. I’d love to hear you explain your views there, and why you don’t think they should receive any taxpayer support.

  5. copernicus Says:

    Ferdinand: “As it happens, the more I consider the fine print of the Browne proposals, the more sceptical I am becoming about whether they are appropriate”

    Now you are talking like a politician, perhaps because your view may not match with the prevailing political views in Scotland? You may not like what Lord Browne recommends, but his team took nearly a year and listened to submissions. The leadership has laways been what you believe in and stand up to be counted.

    • That’s what I am doing, Copernicus, that’s what I’m doing. And no, I am not following any ‘prevailing political views in Scotland’, whatever they might be! I am firmly in favour of student contributions. What I am sceptical about as regards Browne is the approach to the humanities, which will mean that they become the preserve of the wealthy. I don’t care how long Browne’s group deliberated, on this issue they are wrong; and that has some onward effect on other matters. I am absolutely in favour of student contributions, but also of taxpayer contributions; I am not in favour of an entirely privatised system!

  6. copernicus Says:

    “Browne is the approach to the humanities, which will mean that they become the preserve of the wealthy”
    It is the same now, only STEM attracts lower middle and working class (as they do go mostly to comprehensives where A levels in humanities do not fill class rooms) as they see job opportunities. That is my experience in STEM as a STEM person.

  7. copernicus Says:

    Oh, BTW, I am a governor of a local college and two comprehensive schools here.

  8. copernicus Says:


    It is not unargued insult. I am sorry if you think like that. My comment about “no hope” is that I am pretty sure why Lord Browne and his committee which consisted of Prof Eastwood, VC of Birmingham U and a History professor and Diane Coyle, an economist recommended about humanities. Your view does look at one side only, but I believe this committee’s recommendation.

  9. copernicus Says:

    Prof Eastwood is Chancellor and not VC. You could invite Lord Browne to RGU. If I recollect well, he was awarded a hon doctorate there.

  10. copernicus Says:


    Forget England. Comment on this:
    which is more linked to your experience.

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