Higher education facing coronavirus crisis without ‘a new deal’ as MPs say lasting reform needed

Last week forty-eight professional academic associations across the country sent a letter to educati

Last week forty-eight professional academic associations across the country sent a letter to education ministers to call on a 'new deal for higher education'. - Credit: PA

Academic associations across the country are calling on the government to support “a new deal for higher education” saying a temporary bailout isn’t enough to help them get through the pandemic and beyond.

The letter, sent last week to Education Ministers, points out that the sharp drop in universities’ income, as a result of a fall in student numbers in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, will endanger the ability of the UK Higher Education sector to maintain excellence in education and research, with grave consequences for the economy and society.

The associations, led by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, called the current government funding model “inadequate” and said rather than providing a one-time bailout, public spending on colleges and universities needs to be increased to be in line with the 34 countries which make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

UK public spending on higher education is the lowest among OECD countries, and comprises less than half of the average spending among the OECD’s other 34 countries, making UK universities particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in income from student numbers.

Even before the pandemic nearly 25 percent of all UK universities were in deficit and are announcing job cuts and even cuts to the range of courses and subjects being offered.

MP for Barking Margaret Hodge said it is vital the government support colleges and universities and said: “With the right support from government our thriving institutions can be engines of growth for the economy after the current crisis.

“But we need to see lasting reforms of the whole sector too so that universities, students, and taxpayers all get a fair deal.”

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A Department for Education spokesperson said it has introduced a package of measures to stabilise the admissions system and ease pressure on universities’ finances.

“We have confirmed universities’ eligibility to apply for Government-backed loan and financing packages worth at least £700m according to Office for Students estimates, along with reprofiling £100m of research funding and £2.6bn worth of tuition fee payments for providers.”

Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham said: “When we come out the other side of this there will need to be far reaching discussions about how we restructure society and what our priorities are.

“I think this is a prime opportunity for the Government to make a commitment on university funding which was stretched thin even before the pandemic.”

Mr Cruddas added that the priority should be investing in the NHS and care sectors and environmental protections.