Universities are on the brink of crisis. Coronavirus may tip them over the edge

Glen O’Hara
Photograph: aberCPC/Alamy

The UK’s universities are now in real crisis. They are not crying wolf, and they are not asking for more money to inflate management salaries or buff up shiny new buildings. If they don’t get more help, some of them could well fold in the near future.

This emergency has been in the making for a long time. Tuition fees have been fixed at the background level of general inflation, way below cost rises inside higher education itself, for nearly a decade; they have been completely frozen for two years. A whole generation of new buildings has been needed to replace worn-out estate from the 1950s and 1960s. Pension costs are rising.

Coronavirus is a perfect storm on an already forbidding sea. By obliterating income from international fees and taught postgraduate courses, as well as potentially slashing home undergraduate numbers for at least a year, institutions that were getting into trouble are now lurching towards disaster.

What might that mean in the medium- to long-term? With this level of uncertainty, prediction is very difficult indeed, but there probably are three or four lines of march.

First and foremost, universities will now be subject to the same, or an even fiercer level of, the austerity that the rest of the public sector has been feeling for a decade. The relatively good years that made things feel merely cramped and gritty, while large sectors of our shared lives fell into decrepitude, are sadly over.

The exact level of that pain is still subject to uncertainty. Boris Johnson, who, like David Cameron, always dreamed of being a sunny, expansive prime minister in a time of plenty, might try to spend his way out of any difficulties – especially on the capital side, where he retains a penchant for costly big-ticket projects.

In addition, Johnson won’t necessarily want his “levelling up” agenda threatened. Conservatives will worry if Keele University gets into trouble in a freshly blue seat, and right next to new Tory seats in Stoke-on-Trent; or if the University of Bolton collapses, sitting as it does right next to five more Tory gains from 2019.

The Treasury is, however, another matter. By quibbling over help for small businesses and, more ominously, pushing back against a proper rescue package for universities themselves, it has clearly indicated it is going to want back a lot of the money from its limited assistance.

Yes, tuition fees have been brought forward. Yes, olive branches may be extended to individual institutions. But the Treasury will say that the money is going to have to come from somewhere. If it doesn’t come from students – and higher fees seem politically impossible – it will come from redundancies. It is as simple as that.

A second trend will be mergers and “rationalisation”. Those universities who do get into really acute financial trouble are unlikely to just shut their doors and put up a “closed” sign. They are going to put out an urgent request for help – which is one of the reasons why the government, very unwisely, might let them suffer for now.

In that case, regional blocs could be shoved together like Lego, making use of expensive buildings and infrastructure while slimming down the student offer – and potentially making staff redundant and taking on more part-time teachers.

A sprinkling of mergers will look like it is saving the government money, since the cost in chaos and incoherence will only emerge some way down the track, and this course will not only lure Whitehall. Scottish universities, relatively numerous and without recourse to undergraduate fees for Scottish residents, look particularly likely to fall victim to these shotgun marriages.

Thirdly, another opportunity the government will seek to wrest from this crisis will be a different sort of merger. Some of what many observers patronisingly and offensively think of as the “weakest” universities may get shoved out of traditional higher education altogether, asked, as they struggle, to get together with groups of regional further education providers (which often offer technical or vocational training).

This is where shorter degree-level courses over two rather than three years, teaching over the traditional summer break and research-light teaching might come in, opening the way for future governments to cope with the demographic bulge of 18-year-olds that is about to start. This will be at a much lower cost than allowing them all to claim £9,250 a year for three years.

Fourthly, it may be that online and distance learning gets a decisive boost from the cessation of face-to-face teaching, especially if no effective coronavirus treatments or vaccine emerge in pretty short order. Cambridge has already announced that all its lectures will go online during 2020/21, though it’s still planning to conduct seminars and tutorials in person – at a safe distance.

It is hard to imagine the full roster of on-campus activities resuming without that sort of progress, and if this physically distanced phase continues for a year or even more some undergraduates may get a taste for it. Living in halls has become enormously expensive: polls show that students are much more worried about their living costs than fees. So-called “blended” learning, in which universities provide more recorded content alongside face-to-face contact, may become more prevalent.

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It is more than possible to be sceptical about this last point. The overwhelmingly young people who take first degrees in the UK have never shown much appetite for learning from the parental home. But any new coalitions bringing together the less well-established end of higher education with further education might find this an attractive way to further lower costs.

The UK’s universities are now entering a white-water phase of change. No more money will be forthcoming – at least, for the sector as a whole. Some universities will be forced to appeal for individual bailouts.

In return, both Whitehall and the devolved administrations will want something back: a cheaper, thinner, less numerous, less homogenous and more “efficient” sector in which managerialism and audit will balloon further. It is not much of an appealing prospect.

• Glen O’Hara is professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University

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