by GR Evans
The Government’s latest plan for university funding in England makes depressing reading for future students and universities alike. Students will be paying off their student loans (albeit with slightly reduced but still compound interest), for forty years not thirty. Universities will have the tuition fees funded by their loans capped at £9,250 a year until 2025, making seven years since they were last (slightly) increased. Yet this can be no more than a holding move in the face of a current student loan-book total of more than £160bn.
The scale of that student debt was not supposed to matter. When loans for student fees began they were considered to be a mere supplement to the Government ‘grant’ of public funding for universities. The write-off of unpaid student debt after 30 years would not count as a loss to the tax-payer in the eyes of the Treasury.
The Coalition Government’s decision in 2010 to triple student fees to £9,000 and shrink the ‘block grant’ to vanishing point made that view of things impossible to sustain after 2012. In 2019 the Office for National Statistics redesignated the write-off of student loans as public spending. The now only too visibly mounting £billions have become a major embarrassment. The current proposal to limit student numbers by imposing minimum entry qualifications for students is designed to ensure that fewer loans are taken out, but the system is clearly not sustainable in the long-term.
The ‘block grant’ imposed no debt upon students until tuition fees were introduced in 1998, and until they rose to their current levels the debt was not crippling. Now it is, and it weighs on the taxpayer as well as the student. The Government ‘grant’ was clearly taxpayer money spent, but it could be measured out year by year, was a known quantity, and once spent could not still be costing the taxpayer unforeseen amounts decades later. It was regularly grumbled that fixed annually it gave universities little chance to plan ahead, but that problem has not been removed by leaving universities to gather what fees they can by admitting students.
Funding by Government grant served universities for almost a century from 1919, The call for it began in earnest at the beginning of the twentieth century, once half a dozen new universities had been founded and needed it. In 1918 the Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University, Sir Oliver Lodge, set about organizing a deputation ‘for the purpose of applying to the Government for greatly increased financial support’.
One point of principle quickly became important. In 1919 Oxford’s scientists wrote directly to H.A.L. Fisher, President of the Board of Education, to press for money for salaries for demonstrators and scholarships in science and mathematics. The very future of science was at stake, they cried. This prompted a clarification. Fisher explained that:
‘each University which receives aid from the State will receive it in the form of a single inclusive grant, for the expenditure of which the University, as distinguished from any particular Department, will be responsible’ (Oxford University Gazette (1919), p475).
This established the ‘block’ character of the grant’.
The second important principle was that Governments must not be able to attach conditions to the grant however they pleased. As Lord Haldane argued, there must be a buffer or intermediary. From 1919 until the creation of the statutory funding bodies under the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 that took the form of the universities-led University Grants Committee. After 1992 HEFCE always received a guidance letter from the Secretary of State at the beginning of the year, giving a steer about the way in which the block grant should be allocated, but it continued to take its ‘buffering’ duty seriously.
In Times Higher Education on 24 February Aaron Porter told the story of the shrinking of the ‘block grant’ by the Coalition Government and its almost total replacement since 2010 by greatly enlarged student tuition fees. Those of course were in principle payments for teaching, but there were soon complaints that they were being used to fund research.
The Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 made a decisive separation between teaching and research by creating the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation. The equivalent of the old ‘grant letter’ now comes to the Office for Students from the Department for Education. The most recent of these is dated 9 August 2021. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA s.2(3)) empowers the government to give ‘guidance’, ‘setting out the principles which should be followed in distributing the funding’. UKRI, which bundles together a number of entities, takes the form of a non-departmental government body, under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Its funding by the Secretary of State preserves the ‘buffer’ or Haldane principle, as defined in HERA s.103, but not the principle that such funding should go in a ‘block’ to each university.
This means there would now be a significant structural difficulty in restoring a ‘block grant’ as the principal source of funding for universities, because it could under current legislation affect only the cost of ‘teaching’. But legislation can be amended and there is unfinished business, because the separation of teaching and research has left research students inadequately supported.
What is the alternative? The present adjustments are unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. Freezing tuition fees cannot continue indefinitely, or even for the period to 2025 now proposed by government, without causing some universities to collapse. In a report on 9 March 2022 the National Audit Office warned that OfS and the DfE had to improve trust in their regulatory processes, with ten institutions already subject to ‘special monitoring’ because of doubts about their financial sustainability. Whether students will be willing to pay off their loans for longer and longer periods remains to be seen. (The possibility of restoring ‘free tuition’ was a prominent issue in the recent US presidential election. Although it remains unlikely at present, it suggests that such a change might come back onto the policy agenda in England.) The 40-year repayment period now adopted by government is in effect a ‘graduate tax’; the revenue from loan repayments might be more efficiently and progressively collected via tax simplification, rather than the imposition of what appears to graduates to be a significant debt to be repaid throughout their working lives. It might be time to give serious consideration to the restoration of a true block grant.
SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.