UUK president: universities need stable funding and freedom from political interference

Steve West, vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, begins his two-year term with a last ditch plea from the sector to ministers ahead of this autumn’s comprehensive spending review

The new president of Universities UK (UUK) will use his inaugural speech at the organisation’s annual conference today to advocate for the role of universities in “levelling up” and petition ministers for “stable” funding and “freedom from interference and political side-shows”. 

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 on Thursday 9 September, as he begins a two-year term as UUK president.

West will talk of the importance of universities in “levelling up”, cautioning government ministers – who will be among the audience – against spending policies that inhibit the higher education sector.

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 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.”

“With the right government support, a stable funding environment and a long-term plan and freedom from interference and political side-shows deflecting us from our core mission, universities can and will help the UK build back, not just better, but faster, stronger, and greener too,” West will tell delegates.

We know the economic environment is challenging, but the country needs its universities more than ever to help drive our post-Covid recovery
– Steve West, Universities UK

The UUK conference brings together the leaders of 140 higher education institutions to discuss challenges facing the sector. This year the event is hosted at Northumbria University, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Northumbria is one of five universities in the north-east of England: an area that witnessed record Conservative gains in the 2019 general election. West will explicitly reference the importance of universities to ‘red wall’ towns – and the north-east in particular. 

UUK will soon publish independent research that demonstrates how the HE sector supports more than 850,000 jobs in England: “That is as many jobs as there are people in the whole of Tyneside,” West will say. “Where we are today, in the north-east of England, universities employ 17,000 people directly and support more than 30,000 jobs in total through their activities,” he will add. 

Now is not the time to shrink or underfund universities or colleges,” West will contend, urging those with power to affect the CSR “to be visionary, brave and bold… through smart policy and targeted public investment”. 

During his address to delegates, West will plead with ministers to make universities – as key local institutions – exempt from any Covid-induced government spending cuts. “We know the economic environment is challenging, but the country needs its universities more than ever to help drive our post-Covid recovery, to support our NHS and to create good, sustainable jobs in our local communities,” West will say.

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 that the sector wants to return to as much in-person teaching as is 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.

Read more: Urgent action needed to ‘recover’ UK appeal to international students

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