Universities in England, still reeling from Brexit, are bracing themselves for unprecedented scrutiny as the government turns its attention to how the sector can deliver on the prime minister’s so-called “levelling up” agenda.
After Number 10’s recent assault on the BBC and criticism of the civil service, there are fears that universities, which overwhelmingly supported the campaign to remain in the EU, could find themselves next in the line of fire.
A recent report by the rightwing Policy Exchange thinktank, founded by Michael Gove and seen as close to government thinking, said the higher education sector was seen as “out of touch” and “a sitting duck” for the new government.
It claimed universities had lost “the faith of the nation in some critical areas” and flagged familiar ministerial concerns about failures to protect freedom of speech on campus, so-called “low quality” degrees that offered poor economic returns for students, excessive vice-chancellor pay and degree grade inflation.
Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, told colleagues it was no longer business as usual for universities. The sector had escaped the worst of austerity during the last decade, he said, but “the zeitgeist has changed”.
Smith, who contributed to the Policy Exchange report, said: “By any account universities have had it phenomenally easier than other bits of anything publicly funded. We’ve been at least protected against the tremendous cutbacks that have come through austerity elsewhere.
“There’s a kind of view that we’ve been relatively well dealt with and therefore now it’s our turn. Universities fit Dominic Cummings’s view of the establishment. Nearly all of us were pro-remain. We were seen as on the losing side of that argument. But much more importantly, the effects of marketisation have resulted in a system that has got some excesses that have to be sorted out.”
Although universities have received negative press in the last three years, with numerous stories about “fat cat” pay, “Mickey Mouse degrees”, a crisis in student mental health and unconditional offers, many in the sector believe worse may be to come as the new government flexes its muscles.
At the moment the government is mulling its options, not wanting to tarnish the reputation of England’s universities that attract billions of pounds in research funds and students from overseas. But domestically it remains keen to curb the sector’s growth in recent years, especially in courses that offer graduates only weak career boosts.
Several vice-chancellors who spoke to the Guardian said it was uncomfortable finding themselves on the losing side of the Brexit debate but denied they were out of touch.
Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of Northampton University, said: “Universities are getting criticised in some quarters for supporting agendas that don’t seem to be in line with the popular direction of the country.
“These get picked up in the rightwing press as evidence that universities are out of touch. I am absolutely convinced that is not the case. It’s up to universities to put forward counterarguments.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank, said: “Some people in universities feel under the cosh but in a way universities are just getting the scrutiny that other institutions have long had.”
On freedom of speech, the government has threatened to legislate. Critics, however, have challenged the claims of a crisis, dismissing it as largely concocted and part of a broader culture war against political correctness.
The Policy Exchange report is being seen as a shot across the bow of the sector, in an attempt to bring universities on board with the government’s “levelling-up” policies, which are supposedly designed to boost the economy in left-behind regions and deliver benefits for local communities.
It says: “Following a very vocal and at times highly partisan participation in the Brexit debate, as well as an increasing number of unnecessary rows over freedom of speech, there is a growing risk that some on the right may begin to see the sector as actively and irredeemably opposed to conservative and British values.
“The sector needs to build bridges, not dig in, and demonstrate that it is a national asset, prized by the whole nation and capable of engaging with the values of those outside the educated metropolitan elite.”
Apprehension in the sector is not helped by the fact that university staff are currently on strike over pay, pensions and working conditions for the third time in three years. The situation is being closely monitored by the government, whose chief concern is mitigating the impact on students.
Jo Grady, the University and College Union general secretary, said it was a vital time for the higher education sector, with reform of tuition fees and admissions still in the offing. She said: “Vice-chancellors do look out of touch when they are enjoying massive salaries and all sorts of perks and their staff are forced to take industrial action to fight for fair pay, working conditions and pensions.
“Universities must ensure they work with staff and students to ensure a sustainable future for the sector and, post-Brexit, ensure they remain open to the international community.”
So far, universities have made little serious attempt to settle the strikes, with mixed signals over pay negotiations, suggesting a gap between negotiators and vice-chancellors.
Prof Martin Rees, astronomer royal and fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, defended universities’ record on Brexit and said it should not be held against the sector. “University teachers (like school teachers) are more imbued than those in many other careers with the public service ethos; they (and the institutions they work in) are also more likely to have an international outlook.
“So it’s not surprising – and surely not a reason for criticism – that they tend to favour public services, public expenditure, and international contacts to a greater
extent than the present government.”
On pay, however, he said the “Himalayan” salaries of vice-chancellors and certain senior administrators had fostered discontent among staff, as well as damaging the reputation of universities in the general public.
Even without the change of government, universities were facing a turbulent time with outstanding proposals by the Augar review to reduce tuition fees and the prospect of a huge surge in the number of 18-year-olds applying to universities because of a baby boom in the 2000s.
Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of Sunderland University, which hosted Boris Johnson and his cabinet on Brexit day, said it was a pivotal moment for the sector. “We have all soaked up and absorbed what’s happened over recent years.
“I think it’s a really critical moment for the sector not to go into defence mode, even if government decides to take some quite challenging positions with universities. This is the moment for us to be confident, to be open to potential criticism, but not to be so overwhelmed by it that we are not prepared to stand up and talk about all the really good things we do.”