Russell Group warns unsustainable funding threatens student experience

UK undergraduate tuition fees do not cover the cost of teaching – and the mission group warns that the per-student deficit will average £4,000 by 2025.

Ahead of the deadline for a government consultation on sweeping reforms of higher education in England, the Russell Group has warned unsustainable funding puts universities perilously close to cutting teaching.

The Russell Group represents 21 of the most research-intensive universities in England. Its members account for more than half the country’s 20 largest HE institutions by student intake.

Today, the mission group warned that tuition fees and grant top-up funding are not enough to cover the escalating costs of undergraduate education.

Latest research by the group suggests that by 2024/25, each UK-domiciled undergraduate will generate an average £4,000 loss for a university. In 2021/22, the average per-student deficit stood at £1,750 – but the Russell Group say the impact of rising costs and the prolonged freeze on tuition fees will put pressure on already strained balance sheets.

A spokesperson for the Russell Group said that, although the figures are an average across all departments – meaning more severe losses in some high-cost STEM courses – all subjects will run up a deficit by the middle of the decade.

Unaddressed over the long term, this will inevitably affect the range and quality of courses that can be offered to students at a time when we need a breadth of high-level skills
– Dr Tim Bradshaw, Russell Group

The mission group warns that – unless ministers take action – cuts to the student experience, courses, and infrastructure will follow. The spokesperson said that universities have “already and will continue to take steps to mitigate the impact of deficits”, adding more funding was needed “to deliver on government ambitions such as the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE)”.

The government recently announced £750m of funding for universities in England over three years. The package included £450m of capital funding, which is in line with current annual capital spending, and an additional £300m to meet the cost of some high-cost subjects through the strategic priorities grant.

“We understand the challenges government faces in balancing the public finances, so welcome recent investment in high-cost subjects and capital funding,” Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group. “However, with tuition fees frozen for another two years, and costs and student demand rising, the pressure on funding for teaching will grow.”

“[I]f unaddressed over the long term, this will inevitably affect the range and quality of courses that can be offered to students at a time when we need a breadth of high-level skills to drive a sustainable recovery.”

Bradshaw urged ministers to “look at a new funding formula” that will “protect” the skills pipeline.

The statement released today by the Russell Group is the first in response to the consultation on HE reform, which closes tomorrow (Friday, 6 May). A detailed response to the government’s reform proposals, including minimum eligibility criteria for degree tuition fees and student number controls, will follow on Friday.

The HE reform consultation closes on the same day as a consultation on the LLE, which ministers hope to launch in 2025. Earlier this week, in a statement addressing the LLE consultation, Universities UK warned all its members in England would struggle to meet the aspirations of the lifelong learning agenda without sustainable funding.

Read more: Student ombudsman tells universities to pay record compensation

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