by Sir Adrian Webb
The publication on 13 September 2023 of the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee report on the Office for Students drew attention to the financial challenges facing universities in the UK and to the challenges associated with regulating and overseeing these risks.
This week we look set to see these challenges increase with the possible increase in the base interest rates by the Bank of England (the “Bank Rate”) to 5.5% when the Monetary Policy Committee next meets on Thursday 21st September (Guardian, Financial Times, 24 August 2023 ). If there is another 0.25% increase in the base rate, as is widely anticipated, this will place government and university finances under further pressure over the next few years with significant negative implications for HE students, the UK Government’s education budget in general and the further education college budget in particular. Furthermore, this anticipated rise in the Bank Rate may not be the last of these increases if Government spending remains high and inflationary pressures persist through the winter months.
The most immediate and direct effect will be on the interest payments that universities need to pay on short term loans. According to HESA, average HE provider debt as a proportion of turnover stands at 0.16%, but with highs of 454% and lows of 0%, with unrestricted reserves of 204% of income (HESA, 2023). Of course, financial indicators expressed as a percentage of income for institutions of very variable sizes give no feel for the absolute amount of cash owed, or the annual cost of repayments.
The top 13 higher education providers by percentage of debt are all small private institutions; most have recorded deficits in recent years and appear to have low levels of cash available to cover running costs. The next 35 institutions by scale of debt all have debt levels of over 50% of turnover. Among these institutions there are 22 large pre- and post-92 universities in all parts of the UK.
The challenges presented by potential increases in interest payments will be exacerbated over the next two years by the continued decline in the real value of student tuition fees, limitations on the recruitment of overseas students with dependants and a decline in the proportion of students applying to low and mid-tariff universities.
When student tuition fees were first introduced, HE providers were encouraged to set fees at between £6,000 and £9,000 per annum. Some price competition between institutions was expected but in practice the vast majority set their fees at the higher level. Recent analysis by Mark Corver of DataHE, an independent higher education consultancy, indicates that the real level of fees that higher education providers charge students as tuition fees has dropped below £6,000 if the value is deflated by the Retail Prices Index (RPI), slightly higher if other measures of inflation are used.
Over the last five years, many HE providers have been attempting to cover the reduced value of undergraduate home tuition fee income by recruiting larger number of international students, particularly from China, India and Nigeria. This approach has attracted large numbers of students to the most selective universities and those in major cities; many universities now have more than 25% of their students recruited from these sources. The announcement of restrictions on the release of temporary visas to support the dependents of international students has already had an impact on the recruitment of people from overseas who want to study at UK universities.. This impact looks set to continue and increase in 2024.
To illustrate the issues faced by the more highly indebted institutions with a significant number of international students, consider the composite case of the University of Camberwick Green, with net debt of circa £200m and current loans with a weighted average debt cost of 3.5%. If this institution needed to renew all of its existing debt obligations this would likely double the costs of debt servicing from £7million to at least £14million. This would mean an additional annual outlay as a proportion of turnover in excess of 5%, dependent on the interest rates agreed with lenders and the term of their loan (e.g. revolving credit facility, private placement, bond or bank lending). For a university like Camberwick Green, which has also recorded large operating deficits in recent years, additional debt is likely to be more expensive and so the short-term options are likely to focus on selling assets or laying off staff; these are not easy or attractive options. Changes to course portfolios and/or increased international student recruitment and transnational operations are unlikely to produce the necessary returns quickly and without undue financial or reputational risk.
The more prestigious and selective universities in the more affluent parts of the UK are unlikely to face pressures that are likely to bear down hard on those which are, by conventional measures, less prestigious and less selective, in parts of the UK that engaged in levelling up activities with significant HE involvement. The impacts of high indebtedness, declining student recruitment and operating deficits are already being felt with significant redundancies planned at ten universities.
The next most significant impact of higher interest rates will be on student loan repayments and the arrangements for funding this activity. The student loan book currently stands at £206bn with an additional £20bn of loans being issued each year. The internal real interest rate charged on these loan arrangements by HM Treasury, i.e. the real discount rate (excluding inflation), was set at -0.7% in 2021 at the height of the Covid crisis and remains the rate proposed in the Plan 5 changes scheduled to come into place during 2024. The nominal discount rate taking account of inflation is 1.9%. If Bank of England interest rates and by consequence HM Treasury bond/gilt rates move to 6.25% in 2024, as has been forecast, and the student loan rate is changed as a consequence, this will create an adverse upward movement in real interest rate charges on the loan book of circa 5%. Dependent on the scheduling of the loans this will then feed through into the calculation of the principal debt students are required to repay and also the Resource Allocation Budget (RAB) charge paid by the UK Government on loans that are forecast not to be repaid. Under revised accounting rules introduced in 2021, a proportion of this increased RAB charge will need to be accounted for in the national deficit in the year it is incurred and cannot be delayed until the loan matures. With forecast increases in the scale of the student loan book through to the next decade there are likely to be powerful voices in the Treasury wishing to pay down this debt or reduce the scale of its growth. This in turn is likely to mean a need to revisit the current arrangements in advance of the next HM Treasury Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in 2025.
The current loan book is financed in part by the spread (difference) between the notional interest rate charged to students on loans they have taken out, which is currently set with some reference to the Prevailing Market Rate (PMR) for commercial loans, and the lower rate paid by the Treasury for its borrowings. The PMR was set at 7.3% in February 2023 and confirmed at this level for the period between September and November 2023 on 11th August. . At present the Bank of England Bank Rate is 5.3% and so the spread between the student loan rate and the Bank Rate was 2%. If a similar spread is expected if the base rate rises further to 6.25% the PMR could be 8.25% or even higher. Interest rates at this level would make almost all student loans un-repayable, effectively converting the loan system into a graduate tax confined to new students and also potentially introducing a significant element of “moral hazard” as many students would face little incentive to do anything other than maximise their student loans. Given that they will never repay them; they will face an additional marginal loan repayment (tax) rate of 9% on undergraduate loans and 6% on postgraduate loans, so why not take out as much loan as possible and complete a postgraduate taught or research degree, even when the economic returns to them individually and to the public purse are negative. Beyond this “moral hazard” argument there is also arguably a “moral outrage” argument to be had about imposing an age-related differential income tax rate on younger people who are recent graduates.
The problems outlined above are then likely to be heightened by forecast increases in the number of prospective undergraduate students entering the system over the next seven years. In 2021/2022 there were 2.16 million U.K. domiciled students in UK HE institutions and a further 0.68 million students from the EU and other overseas countries. By 2030 the number of UK domiciled students is expected to increase by between 200,000 and 400,000 as a consequence of increases in the number of people in the relevant age groups. This would be at an average additional cost per student of at least £60,000 per three-year undergraduate degree, based on loans for tuition fees of 3 x £9,250 and for maintenance of 3 x up to £13,022 for students living away from home in London. Many students study for longer than three years on foundation and/or masters programmes, hence the forecast of £60,000 per student. This is an additional annual cost of loan outlay of £12bn or more. This seems unlikely to be fundable.
The implication of these cost pressures would be serious enough if they were confined to HE, but they are not. Far from it. At present the growing costs of HE are being paid for by other parts of the UK Government’s education budget, resulting in real terms cuts to the further education budget, consequent low rates of pay for FE college staff, and cuts to the adult education budget. In adult education, FE and apprenticeship provision pay rates are set locally rather than nationally and so reductions in institutional budgets in this part of the education sector have tended to be accommodated by falling wages and unfilled vacancies rather than through redundancies as has been the case in the university sector. These different parts of the post-school education system are making greater use of part-time and temporary contracts and precarious jobs. This at a time when the need for more and better vocational education is increasingly widely recognised and the need for “industry standard” staff capable of delivering the new and upgraded skills required by rapid technological change has never been greater.
Across the UK 70% of adults have not been to university, but like many older graduates they would benefit from the opportunity to take a course at a local college or other adult education provider. With 20% of the adult working age population (5 million people) currently economically inactive and with chronic skills shortages in all parts of economy it is very worrying that the pay of college lecturers in catering, construction, digital, engineering, health and social care is considerably below the rates paid to comparably skilled people working in the private sector. Employers in the UK spend on average 50% less than their counterparts in mainland Europe on workforce education and training. The combination of reductions in employer spending on training and cuts in UK Government funding for FE and apprenticeships has led to a reduction of over 1 million student places in adult education, apprenticeships and FE per year in the last ten years. This is not the position the UK needs to be in to improve productivity. Indeed, it is the very opposite of what is required to support such mission – let alone to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth.
Who is responsible for monitoring and governing this system? At the moment the financial position of individual universities is overseen by their governing bodies, aided by internal and external auditors predominantly drawn in combinations of two of the big four audit firms. The Office for Students (OfS) monitors the financial position of individual higher education providers as part of its regulatory function, but it is not formally required to intervene financially at an early stage to support institutions in difficulties. It may issue a requirement to improve the plans for protecting students, but it is not required to prevent an institution from failing. The Student Loan Company (SLC) is overseen by an independent board and supported by a representative from the sponsoring departments in the UK’s national governments (i.e. Department for Education, Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Office in the absence of the Northern Ireland Executive). Whether the OfS, national regulators in the devolved nations or the SLC have modelled the scenarios outlined in this note is a moot point. Indeed, it is more of a mute point because no one is publicly talking about these issues and the problems that go with them in a joined-up way with a long-term perspective. It would be helpful if they did, and if there was a debate about the consequences for higher and further education providers and student loans of the return to real interest rates more in-keeping with the long run historical average. Given the commitment of central banks around the world to move in this direction after 15 years of ultra-low interest rates there is a pressing need for a comprehensive review of where we are heading and what needs to be done about it.
As we approach a General Election in 2024, now is the time for the major political parties in the UK to commit to the appointment of a Royal Commission or equivalent to look at these issues with an impartial, sector neutral and critical eye. Over the last hundred years all major changes of this type have proceeded in this way (i.e. Smith Report 1919, White Paper on Education 1943, Robbins Review 1964, Dearing Review 1997 and Browne Review 2011). Indeed, in 1997 Gillian Sheppard (Conservative minister) and David Blunkett (prospective Labour minister) agreed in the run up to the General election to respect the Dearing Committee proposals. A similar arrangement was reached regarding the Browne Review between Peter Mandelson (Labour Minister) and George Osborne (prospective Conservative Minister) in the run up to the general election in 2010. The settlements in 1944 and 1963 were similarly effectively cross-party. This is a fundamental issue for the future of the UK and deserves to be made non-political with recommendations for the long term. Previous reviews have produced long term plans which have been implemented when they had cross-party support and straddled a General election.
Sir Adrian Webb was an academic at the London School of Economics and Loughborough University; he was Deputy Vice Chancellor at Loughborough and Vice Chancellor at the University of Glamorgan. As well as holding a number of senior management positions and a wide range of public service/consultancy roles in local and central government (including HM Treasury, DHSS, Home Office, DFES, and the Ministry of Justice) and in Wales, he has also held many roles in the Third Sector. Sir Adrian was a member of the Dearing Review committee in the late 1990s and chaired a review of further education colleges and funding in Wales in 2007.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organisation with which the author is affiliated.