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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Who should pay for higher education in England, and how much

by Rob Cuthbert

SRHE News is a quarterly publication, available only to SRHE members, which aims to comment on recent events, publications, and activities in a journalistic but scholarly way, allowing more human interest and unsupported speculation than any self-respecting journal, but never forgetting its academic audience and their concern for the professional niceties. These are some extracts from the April 2022 issue.

Government uses high inflation as cover for hitting students, graduates and universities

The Government sneaked a student loans announcement out on Friday afternoon 28 January 2022. Ben Waltmann (Institute for Fiscal Studies) said: “Today’s announcement … constitutes a tax rise by stealth on graduates with middling earnings. … For a graduate earning £30,000, this announcement means that they will pay £113 more towards their student loan in the next tax year than the government had previously said. … What really matters is how long this threshold freeze will stay in place. If it is only for one year, the impact on graduates will be moderate, and the government can only expect to save around £600 million per cohort of university students. If it stays in place for longer, it could transform the student loan system, with a much lower cost for the taxpayer and a much higher burden on graduates than they thought … when they took out their loans.” However, some well-informed commentators thought that the Minister had made the best of a bad job.

Waltmann followed up in his 10 February ‘Observation’: ”Students will see substantial cuts to the value of their maintenance loans, as parental earnings thresholds will stay frozen in cash terms and the uplift in the level of loans will fall far short of inflation. This continues a long-run decline in the value of maintenance entitlements. The threshold below which students are entitled to full maintenance loans has been unchanged in cash terms at £25,000 since 2008; had it risen with average earnings, it would now be around £34,000. Separately, the student loan repayment threshold will also be frozen in cash terms. … Finally, tuition fees will remain frozen in cash terms for another year, which hits universities and mainly benefits the taxpayer. … as our updated student finance calculator shows, the government is saving £2.3 billion on student loans under the cover of high inflation.”

At last, the government response to Augar

On 24 February 2022 the government finally issued a detailed response to the 2019 Augar Report, setting out a series of policy proposals and further issues for consultation: “Put simply, we need a fairer and more sustainable system for students and institutions, and of course the taxpayer. We need a system that will maintain our world-class universities not just for today, but for the decades to come. And we need a fairer deal for students …”. Rachel Wolf wrote for The Times Red Box on 24 February 2022 that she was encouraged by the Augar response (and the separate consultation on Lifelong Learning Entitlement), because it suggested that there was proper Cabinet government with a sensible Secretary of State for Education, rather than No 10 being in charge of everything. Yes, but … there was precious little welcome for most of the proposals.

Nick Hillman blogged for HEPI just ahead of the DfE announcement, trying desperately to save the Willetts fee policy (he was Willetts’ special adviser) from being labelled as a political failure. That policy was designed to be redistributive and progressive, but in practice the shortfall in repayments (RAB) became much too high and not enough people understood that many students were not expected to repay loans in full. The Theresa May government misunderstood it to the extent that they raised the repayment threshold, which cost the Exchequer much more without giving much benefit to students. The Treasury tolerated it until the national accounting systems were properly changed to show the loans for what they were, rather than spreading them as a cost over 20-30 years. Hillman selectively quoted Moneysavingexpert Martin Lewis, but he would have done better to see the 24 February Lewis quote that loans had now become a graduate tax throughout people’s working lives.

Jim Dickinson for Wonkhe on 24 February 2022 noted the absence of any response to Augar’s chapter on maintenance grants: “Overall then, almost all students will end up paying significantly more for having significantly less spent on their education … we might have at least expected a response on the bits of Augar that were concerned with students’ costs or their maintenance. That they are not even acknowledged tells us quite a bit about what the government thinks about students and graduates.”

Gavan Conlon of London Economics issued his analysis of the government proposals. “Under the current funding system in 2021-22 … the Exchequer contributes approximately £10.630bn per cohort to the funding of higher education. … given that the RAB charge (the proportion of the total loan balance written off) stands at approximately 52.5%, maintenance loan write-offs cost the Exchequer £4.105bn per cohort, while tuition fee loan write-offs cost £5.303bn. The recent freeze in the repayment threshold reduced HMT costs by approximately £300 million. The provision of Teaching Grants to higher education institutions (for high-cost subjects) results in additional costs of £1.222bn per cohort. Higher Education Institutions receive £11.144bn per cohort in net income from undergraduate students … £10.112bn in tuition fee income … £1.222bn in Teaching Grants. … institutions contribute £189 million per cohort in fee and maintenance bursaries (predominantly the latter) in exchange for the right to charge tuition fees in excess of the ‘Basic Fee’ (£6,165 per annum for full-time students). For students/graduates, the average debt on graduation (including accumulated interest) was estimated to be £47,500 (for full-time first degree students), with average lifetime repayments of £35,900 for male graduates and £13,900 for female graduates. We estimate that 88.2% of all graduates never repay their full loan, while 33.0% never make any loan repayment.” The first scenario he modelled involved “removing the real interest rate, reducing the earnings repayment thresholds to £25,000 (and the associated maximum interest rate threshold), and extending the repayment period to 40 years”. That led to savings of £539million for the Exchequer, with no change for HEIs. The average debt on graduation declined following the changes by £1,600. Average lifetime repayments for male graduates  decline by £2,000 but increase by £3900 for female graduates. “However, these are averages and there are important distributional effects associated with these proposals”. Scenario 2 added the introduction of Minimum Entry Requirements and reintroduction of Student Number Controls. The savings for the Exchequer were estimated at £1322million, with a loss for HEIs of £840million. The effect on students was unchanged.

Conlon then co-authored a blog with Andrew McGettigan (independent) for Wonkhe on 25 February 2022, which showed that most of the savings had actually been achieved by changing the discount rate used for student loans, making them more valuable. “… the graduates who will benefit the most are the highest earning – predominantly male – graduates. The messaging has been that lower earning graduates need to pay more to make the system sustainable. In fact it’s the discount rate change that does most of that – with the extra contributions from lower earning graduates helping to fund the reduced contributions from the richest. … It’s hard to see this when there is a lot of smoke and mirrors. What makes all this worse is the government knows that its discount rate change means that the extra payments made by lower earning graduates in years 30 to 40 are doing most of the heavy lifting.” Student finance campaigner Martin Lewis of Moneysavingexpert called it “a very damning piece”.

Ben Waltmann of the Institute for Fiscal Studies wrote on 24 February that: “The largest student loan reform since 2012 will reduce the cost of loans for high-earning borrowers but increase it for lower earners. Today the government has announced the largest changes to the student loans system in England since fees were allowed to triple in 2012. Starting with the 2023 university entry cohort, graduates will pay more towards their student loans each year and their loan balances will only be written off 40 years after they start repayments. For the same cohorts, the interest rate on student loans will be reduced to the rate of increase in the Retail Prices Index (RPI), a large cut of up to 3 percentage points. Maximum tuition fees will be frozen in nominal terms until the 2024/25 academic year. These changes will transform the student loans system. While under the current system, only around a quarter can expect to repay their loans in full, around 70% can expect to repay under the new system. This is partly due to substantially higher lifetime repayments by students with low and middling earnings and partly due to less interest being accumulated on loans. The long-run benefit for the taxpayer will be around £2.3 billion per cohort of university entrants, as higher repayments by borrowers with low or middling earnings will be partly offset by lower repayments of high-earning borrowers.”

Richard Adams in The Guardian on 24 February 2022 pointed out the DfE’s own analysis showed the poorest would suffer: “An equality analysis on the proposals by the Department for Education, states that “those likely to see some negative impact with increased lifetime repayments under the reforms” include younger and female graduates as well as graduates “from disadvantaged backgrounds, or reside in the north, Midlands, south-west or Yorkshire and the Humber”.

On 24 February 2022 Wonkhe’s Debbie McVitty suggested the proposals were looking for “a third way between capping opportunity and letting the HE market run amok”. John Morgan’s article for Times Higher Education on 28 February 2022 had expert commentators describing the Augar response package as a ‘missed opportunity’, with Chris Husbands (Sheffield Hallam VC) saying “what the package essentially does is to kick the difficult questions down the road”. David Willetts, in Times Higher Education on 3 March 2022, thought the Augar response was “balanced tweaks”; he was trying to rescue his fees policy, which worked in theory but not in practice. Nick Hillman was still trying in Research Professional News on 6 March 2022.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan wrote a Conservative Home-spun version of the changes, in which she interestingly she referred to “Our top university cities – Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, Manchester and London …”. Donelan’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference in March 2022 set out what the Minister wants the narrative to be. Diana Beech (London Higher) blogged for HEPI on 7 March 2022 about the government response to Augar and the recent flurry of OfS consultations: “… what we are facing now is not a series of seemingly independent consultations concerned with the minutiae of regulation, but a multi-pronged and coordinated assault on the values our higher education sector holds dear.” Alan Roff, former Deputy VC at Central Lancashire, reprised his 2021 argument for a graduate contributions scheme with his 22 March HEPI blog. We assume that still, no-one in government is listening.

Mary Curnock Cook, former UCAS chief executive, was upbeat about the possibility of setting a minimum entry requirement (MER) in terms of grade 4 English and Maths at GCSE, in her HEPI blog on 24 February 2022. However SRHE Fellow Peter Scott pointed out, in his 28 February 2022 HEPI blog, that “In Scotland, universities set MERs to widen access. In England, the State imposes MERs to curb it. So, it is very difficult to claim the UK Government’s package of measures in response to the recommendations made by Augar are somehow progressive, let alone favourable to fair access.”

Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.

To join a global community of scholars researching into HE, see the SRHE website.


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Is it possible to bring back the block grant?

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.

Ian Mc Nay


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A period of reflection

By Ian McNay

At the beginning of what some people mistakenly think of as the beginning of a new decade – who counts to ten by starting at zero and finishing at nine? – the pressure is to reflect on the past and project for the future. I am going to mainly eschew the former, but do have concerns for the next five or ten years. In other countries where a populist government has been elected, and moved to authoritarianism, such as Hungary, Turkey, or even the USA, the auguries are not good for higher education. I am not claiming that the new UK administration is as extreme as those examples, but the indications are there about its attitude to dissenting voices – the BBC and Channel 4 coverage of the election, elected parliamentarians defying the party whip, and even the supreme court, to whose rulings the government has twice had to conform, reluctantly, in the interests of constitutional democracy. The manifesto commitment to reviewing the organs of government and the judiciary has been seen by some as ominous.

Whatever the politics, there are other reasons to be concerned for HE. The eight years since fees were last tripled, to £9,000, have been fairly comfortable, financially, for most universities, if not their staff at the sharp end of operations. Marginal costs per student will often be low, especially in non-STEM subjects, so surpluses expand with every expansion of numbers. The Augar Report recommendations, if accepted, may lower fees with little guarantee that government will cover the loss of income. The cost of student loans, some of which now comes within current public spending, will increase dramatically with the demographic bulge in 18-year-olds, starting now, unless the cap on numbers in England is re-imposed, as seems likely, given views on ‘useless’ degrees, unnecessary experts, and pressure to prefer apprenticeships and FE recovery over investing in people who, on graduation, are less likely to vote Conservative than those without a university education. Graduates move to cities where there are jobs, leaving their home communities to an ageing population with different political predilections, made evident in December, and considerable resentment against what they see as graduate elitists in Westminster disregarding their needs and views. That may then convert to resentment against the universities that produce them and whose students affect the availability of property to rent and ‘studentify’ sections of a community. If the low rate of HE access of white working class males, and ‘over-representation’ of British BAME students is added to the mix, there is a base for Powellite stirring in a search for somebody to blame.

HE will not, then, be a high priority among competing, vote-winning, initiatives. Savings from not having to give EU students access to UK loans may not be re-invested. Even for research, where specific protective commitments have been made, the loss of EU funding and the greater difficulty in recruiting and partnering internationally because of visa restrictions, the prospects are not good. UK universities have already begun to drop down international league tables, and there is little reason to believe that that trend will stop. If income becomes tight, consider where funds might come from and the political risks of dependence on Chinese students and partnerships, or grants from oil rich regimes in the Middle East, or big pharma to a greater extent than now. Governors and senior managers will be faced with moral issues, testing the robustness of asserted values.

If universities are to overcome being seen as part of the problem, what has to change? Over the end of year break, I have been reading a collection of essays arising from an event 50 years after Chomsky published ‘The responsibility of intellectuals’. . That is the book’s title; it is edited by Nicholas Allott, Chris Knight, and Neil Smith, published by UCL Press. For us, as individuals who might be regarded as intellectuals, the three responsibilities set out by Chomsky remain: ‘to speak truth and expose lies; to provide historical context, and to lift the veil of ideology’ (Allott et al, 2019:7). The context has changed in 50 years: we ‘speak’, as do others, on social media, where regulation is lax; truth must be told to the powerless as well as the powerful, needing a different level of discourse; there is recognition that ‘the elite need to have an accurate idea of what is going on’ (p10) which means listening to others’ legitimate and valid truths derived from an experience, a background and axioms that differ from those of the people in power; and there is need for active engagement with that alternative reality, not just commentary from a distance, however sympathetic. This may lead to a better informed and value-oriented set of intellectuals.

At institutional level, that applies within universities, too. The gap between the governors, including the senior managers, and the governed is dysfunctional – can you name, say, three lay governors? When did you last speak with one? Some years ago, I reviewed the work of the Greenwich governing body, as recommended in the Dearing Report. It was clear that there was no communication with the governed, either up or down, no communication with ‘constituencies’, since governors could not identify their constituency. There was only an oral report on Academic Board meetings, by the VC, with all other information for the governors coming from the SMT, sometimes incomplete, at times misleading. SMT/staff communication has improved, but is still poor and unsystematic, avoiding anything that might highlight negatives.

As with many modern universities, there are two seats on Academic Board for professors elected by and from the professoriate; this year, as too often in the past, there were no nominations, nobody willing to stand, for a body that has no power beyond ‘advising’ the CEO and where the 1988/92 laws require there to be a majority of people with management responsibilities … on an academic board. My work with staff in many universities suggests that disengagement is widespread: academics have reverted to being what Hoyle labelled ‘restricted professionals’ – classroom based and classroom bound, by choice, since there is a fear of repercussions/reprisals if there is any expression of dissent. So compliance produces conformity, not the creative diversity essential to a healthy academic community. That may also develop at corporate level with the increasingly intrusive regulation by the Office for Students. Interviewing vice chancellors some years ago, even then there was a fear of speaking against ministerial policy, which might result in financial discrimination against their university. There might also be targeted supplementary ‘regulation’ (=control) from the Office for Students. Only in England, of course, which already has more surveillance from government and its agencies than other parts of the UK, as shown by Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath in their 2019 book The Governance of British Higher Education. Possibly as a factor of size, but only partly, I suspect, transferring Chomsky’s concern over ideology to this context, there is also – Shattock and Horvath, again – less solidarity among the different mission groups, who act like ideological factions in a political party. Perhaps some reflections on common values (echoing urgings in one such party) might bring them together. I recommend reading chapter 5 of the Dearing Report as a basis for a period of reflection on values in an academic (and political) community.

I wish you a good new year, with hope that my concerns prove to be unfounded.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich

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HE Finance after Hurricane Adonis

By Rob Cuthbert

So there is to be a review of higher education finance. Probably. But it is still unclear whether it will be a ‘major’ review, whatever that means. It might only mean ‘major enough to see off the threat from Jeremy Corbyn’, but we await most of the detail.

After the June general election the apparent appeal to young people of the Labour Party pledge to abolish fees, and perhaps even write off student debt, sent the Conservative Party into panic mode. Of course it might not have been a pledge, nor even a promise, more an aspiration or a direction of travel. Students have heard that kind of thing before.

Storms were brewing, but no-one expected Hurricane Adonis. Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay


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Post election, Post budget: The shifting landscape of Higher Education in the UK

By Ian McNay

It says something about the Guardian and its reader profile when it builds a crossword round knowing the names of the chancellors of Russell Group universities, as it did on 27 June. I also liked its headline the previous day: ‘New dinosaur found in university store cupboard’. It has now been re-united with older colleagues in the department of economics.

My serious considerations here concern the post-election agenda – what I called Jo-Jo’s in-tray issues in a recent workshop at Coventry (to where/whom, congratulations on their Guardian league table ranking on student views on teaching quality: second only to Cambridge, and, more importantly, above Warwick). That system level policy focus will be balanced by treatment of emergent concerns at institutional level in a later piece.

The most immediate issue is a cut of £450m in the DBIS budget, which may be followed by further longer-term cuts as the failed austerity project continues. Nick Hillman at Coventry suggested an easy step was to convert grants to loans, which reduces the deficit but still increases the debt. I am writing before the budget, but I expect a loosening of fee limits, not ruled out during the election and possibly linked to teaching excellence, with high scorers being allowed to increase fees, as UUK want. Then there will be the sale of further tranches of the loan book, possibly to universities for their own alumni. Research Fortnight expects science to be protected Continue reading

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Bad News

By Marcia Devlin

The Australian federal government has proposed a budget package that is bad news for higher education. It proposes to: reduce commonwealth funding of programs by a blanket twenty percent and allow universities to charge fees (which they will have to do to make up for the government contribution reduction). Of the ‘profit’ universities make, that is, any portion above the twenty percent that is to be cut from commonwealth funding that universities might choose to charge, the proposal is that one-fifth of that must be set aside to fund scholarships for disadvantaged students.

Australia has the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) where students pay a proportion of the costs of their study. They can take out a loan with a marginal rate of interest and aren’t obliged to start paying it back until they reach an income threshold. The budget package also proposes to apply a real rate of interest to the HECS loans students take out to pay the now increased fees.

Modelling by Ben Phillips at the University of Canberra indicates that Continue reading