The new president of Universities UK will use his inaugural speech at the organisation’s annual conference this Thursday to caution government ministers – who will be among the audience – against spending policies that inhibit the higher education sector.
Prof Steve West, the vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, Bristol (UWE Bristol) since 2008, will address vice-chancellors, the press and the education secretary Gavin Williamson later this week as he begins a two-year term as UUK president.
Speaking ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), which the chancellor Rishi Sunak is anticipated to deliver this autumn, Prof West is expected to say: “The stakes are high. The right policy decisions can ensure that anyone with the potential and ability to succeed at university can do so and deliver the supply of talented, highly educated, skilled people that business, public services, and communities need.
“But the wrong decisions may constrain, damage and set back the very towns, cities, and regions that the government most wants to level up, slowing our recovery and delaying our push towards an inclusive, prosperous global Britain.”
The full transcript of Prof West’s speech is yet to be made public officially, but he plans to warn ministers that universities – as important local institutions – should not be the victim of Covid-induced budgetary spending cuts.
The Department for Education has briefed that the full government response to the Augar review will be delivered alongside the CSR. An interim response emerged in January 2021: it confirmed the government’s plan to introduce a lifelong loan entitlement to provide “access to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education” across higher and further education. The government also cut T-funding – renamed the Strategic Priorities Grant – to some high-cost subjects, such as performing arts.
The 2019 Augar report broached reducing the cap on tuition fees to £7,500, cutting loans for foundation years, introducing a lifelong learning entitlement and scaling back funding for so-called “low-value” degrees. Members of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee warned that a tuition fee cut would harm UK research, science and innovation. University research is underfunded against its true costs and the latest figures show a gap amounting to £4.3 billion across the UK. The Higher Education Policy Institute made a similar plea to the government last year, citing the scale of cross-subsidisation of research from tuition fee incomes.
Prof West will also reassure students that universities “pledge to them that we are doing all we can to give them the university and life experiences they want and deserve”. He will encourage students to get vaccinated.
Although he plans to promise the sector wants to return to as much in-person teaching as safe and practical, he will also remind ministers that online learning will supplement in-person teaching in fields and situations where it has proved its superiority. “In education – as in all other areas of our lives – we must not simply revert to how things were before,” he will say.