Sunday, 29 March 2015

A capital week

I write at the end of a long week which saw me in each of the three capital cities on the UK mainland: Cardiff on Monday and Thursday; London on Tuesday and Friday; and Edinburgh on Wednesday. Plenty of opportunity for reflection.
Cardiff, London, Edinburgh: and some other places too

One strand of this reflection was about the changes which are occurring in the UK through devolution, and the unequal parts into which the UK is divided. Universities’ behaviour is being affected by this.

Firstly, with respect to students. Each of the nations has its own policy around student support and student tuition fees, but England, as the largest in volume and wealth, is clearly setting a tone. With each student paying £9k per year, funded through the SLC; and now without any cap on student numbers, English universities can seek to recruit (they might not succeed) as many as they like, from wherever they like.

In Wales, the government subsidises students’ fees, so that they pay only about £3,600 per year, wherever in the UK they study. Welsh universities have a financial cap on how many Welsh-domiciled students they can admit (although I understand that in practice this doesn’t constrain recruitment of Welsh students) and the net effect of this is that Welsh universities do best, financially, when they recruit plenty of students from England, creating a net inwards flow of state funding for universities.

In Scotland, universities cannot charge fees for home (or non-UK EU students), but can charge for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. They are grant funded in respect of the costs of educating Scottish students. This means that for Scottish universities, students from the rest of the UK are valuable, bringing fee income. But, universities are not funded at the same fee per student basis as in England and Wales, so competing with their counterparts elsewhere in the UK is tricky.

In research things are different (for now): the principal of dual support (through the block grant and, in competition, from Research Councils) is so far safe. This means that every university will get some funds for research, dependent upon their baseline quality assessed through REF. But how long will this last? As national governments (ie Scotland, Wales, NI) gain more power, will they wish to include their ‘share’ of research council funding in their allocations? Will experiments in devolution in England, like that in Manchester, lead to regional university funding?

It is an uncertain time, and each university is also having to plot its own sustainability, with uncertainties about future state/fee funding arrangements, the prospect of further cuts in the coming years, and no real confidence that post-election things will be any clearer.

There’s no moral to this reflection. But there is an obvious truth that the future for university funding and system behaviour won’t be stable for a while yet.

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