By David Palfreyman
The Financial Sustainability Strategy Group, a dedicated bunch of HE nerds, has churned out 90 pages on the funding model of UK universities (February 2019), based on TRAC data (Transparent Approach to Costing, as compiled and collated since 1999).
The core activity of teaching UK/EU undergraduates brings in c£13.25billion of income and covers its full economic cost (FEC). Within that overall picture, subjects vary in matching fee income to their FEC. Even after some (HEFCE) top-up grant subsidy for STEM, there is an internal transfer as subsidy to STEM from the cheap-to-teach and massively expanded subjects such as Law and Psychology, as well as the cheap but less expanded Humanities. International student fee income is c£4.5billion, with a third of such high fee-payers coming from China. The FEC is more than covered – leaving a 40% surplus transferred to subsidise research.
Research generates c£9.25billion (£1.5billion as HEFCE QR and the rest as grants/contracts from various sources) but recovers only about 75% of its FEC. Research grants from Government cover 80% of their FEC, from industry and the Research Councils 75%, from the EU 65%, and from charities 60%. The overall loss on research will, therefore, vary according to the mix of research funding from these various sources. The Russell Group lose the most but are best placed to attract more international student fees. A thing called ‘Other Activities’ generates c£5.5billion and has a 15% profit on its FEC – again a source of subsidy for over-trading in under-priced research.
What are the challenges and threats to this financial model?
- Any wobble in the UK share of the global student market – especially since most universities in their financial projections make happy assumptions about growing their International fee income.
- The hikes due in employer contributions to USS (c5%) and to TPS (c8%).
- The freezing of the £9250 UK/EU UG fee.
- The impact of (now unlikely?) Brexit on EU undergraduate numbers and their fee income – although the loss of EU research grants when every one involves a subsidy of 35% of the FEC would be no bad thing!
- Whether the Augar Review will recommend UK undergraduate fees should be cut from £9250 to, say, £7500 – and, even if it does, whether any Government ever implements the proposal.
- How those universities that have borrowed massive amounts will be able to service the interest payments as the above happens – let alone save up so as one day to repay the capital.
In the current financial year English universities get c£1.5billion of funding from the OfS, mainly for the extra cost of STEM teaching over and above the £9250 tuition fees but also for various specialist programmes. Then some £1.6billion is shared out by UKRI to all UK universities as support for research (based on the REF). The OfS and UKRI funding is the job HEFCE used to do before the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act. So the direct taxpayer spend on HE is c£3billion pa, plus spending on support for teaching in UK universities beyond England – and not counting the cost of the subsidy to the student loans system, nor the financing of the various research councils.
We await the Augar Review; meanwhile the supply of UK 18-year olds continues to decline until the early 2020s, which can be bad news for some universities, as the OfS warned in its analysis of Financial Sustainability of Higher Education Providers in England on 4 April 2019. The flow of EU students may reduce IF Brexit ever happens, and on the spending side institutions face significant increases in employer contributions to pensions. All in all, this is not a rosy picture in the short term and potentially grim in the medium term – unless, of course, the Augar Review gets lost in the context of Brexit-induced government chaos or the Treasury generously substitutes extra grant funding for any Augar reduction in the £9250. Unless indeed any ‘Brexit dividend’ leaves room for more public spending on HE as a call on taxpayer largesse alongside the NHS, social care for the elderly, the funding of schools, etc etc…
SRHE Treasurer David Palfreyman is Bursar, New College, Oxford, Director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (OxCHEPS), and a member of the Board of the Office for Students. He writes in a personal capacity.