Unfinished business

It’s not over. It’s particularly not over in the global south, where vaccination rates and hospitalisations continue to place enormous strain on often rudimentary public health services. It’s not over in the UK either, though here vaccination appears to have broken the link between infection and hospitalisation. It’s not over, but in many small ways, life is becoming more normal. The early data suggests a faster economic recovery than the government or Bank of England had predicted, and in so many walks of life there is a desperate desire to re-connect with others, with social life, with travel, with leisure interests, with community. And all that is understandable, even if, like all responsible organisations, the University continues to operate cautiously and considerately in line with public health guidance.

Whilst it’s not over, it’s clear that government is increasingly looking to a post-pandemic future. After eighteen months of reactive management of a public health crisis, ministers are looking to move onto the front foot – as a ministerial adviser put it to me a few weeks ago “to actually start governing”. This is a government elected just a few months before the pandemic with a large parliamentary majority. Take that majority and add into the mix the enormous challenges of rebuilding economic and society after the pandemic, and there is an enormous agenda in need of government action. You don’t need to be party political, nor in any way sympathetic to the government to see that the scale of the challenges is daunting: economic recovery, health inequalities, levelling up, net zero, the housing crisis, our post-Brexit future. Each one of these is multi-dimensional and my list could go on. Government ministers know, moreover, that as a result of the pandemic they now have only three years before the next election. This will be a government in a hurry, and at the end of October, when the three-year government spending review is published, a course will be set for the remainder of the Parliament.

Higher education played a key role in the pandemic response. But higher education went into the pandemic as ‘unfinished business’ for the government. Three years on, there has still been no formal government response to the Augar Review of post-18 education and funding, but we know there are a range of policy options, outstanding commitments and trade-offs on Treasury’s table which will impact on universities. Augar’s headline recommendation – that fees should be reduced from £9250 to £7500 with government funding introduced to meet the cost of expensive-to-teach subjects – has been disowned by Sir Philip Augar himself, but sits there still as a recommendation to government. Treasury concern about the long-term sustainability of the student loan scheme has been mounting. And on the research side, government’s much heralded pre-pandemic commitment to increase funding for research and innovation to reach 2.4% of GDP would require an increase of some £22bn a year.

The costs of student loans, of research, and of newer initiatives such as the government’s mooted lifelong learning entitlement all mount up. I suspect we’ve all had the experience of making shopping lists which go beyond our means. Government needs to make choices. And, worryingly for higher education, those choices need to be weighed against other priorities: within education these include funding training for those who don’t go to university and meeting the costs of rebuilding the schools system after the pandemic; beyond education, there are the mounting costs of social care, of the transition to a greener economy, of the ageing transport infrastructure, of paying down the eye-watering levels of government debt as a result of putting the economy on life support during 2020. This is going to be a very tough spending round, with some potentially very tough challenges to the core activities of universities as government looks to reform post-18 education .

I don’t have any sort of crystal ball. In my own contacts with government, I’ve tried to frame the issues squarely. Along with colleagues, I’ve made the arguments that higher education is an investment as much as a cost, and that the returns cascade through the life course and generations. I’ve argued that universities, of all sorts, play critical roles in shaping opportunity and in building successful economies and societies. I’ve argued, perhaps above all, that the critical challenges facing our society reach deep into a generational contract: those of us who are getting old have an overwhelming moral obligation to provide ladders which give young people routes into the creativity and engagement, the knowledge and the skills which will enable them to address those big questions of economic recovery, health inequalities, levelling up, net zero, the housing crisis, our post-Brexit future. I’ve no idea where those arguments will land, how they will be weighed in government’s priorities nor whether they will shape the way policy is designed.

What I think one can be fairly sure about is this: given a government with a large majority, the accelerating pressure of an election and the system shock which the pandemic provided, the idea that the future will involve merely modest tweaks to the policy framework universities now know seems somewhat naïve. There will be change. It may be extensive.

As Sheffield Hallam’s Vice-Chancellor, I am enormously proud of what we have achieved as a community over the past two years, in our Covid response and in our strategic rethinking. I am equally proud of the work we have undertaken on articulating our values, and the importance we place on them. Realising those values in a far more constrained environment will be challenging but makes the values themselves all the more important.

Whatever the challenges of the spending review, we can be confident of our purpose, our mission and our place.

One thought on “Unfinished business

  1. Over the past two years I have watched with interest the university’s response to both the pandemic and the future needs of the population, both student and regional. This has to be a large part of what universities are for. Despite the circumstances the improvements have been impressive. I really hope future funding changes reflect this.

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