Joined-up thinking and British universities

The publication this week of the IFS’ report on education funding reminds us that real-term per capita spending on university students in England is back to the levels it was in 2011-12, before the introduction of the current tuition fees.

Which had been introduced to resolve the funding crisis in HE.

The problem has returned because successive governments refused to wear the political cost of indexing those fees, so their real-term value has sunk, then plummeted, over time.

This has been an obvious issue for many years and one which universities responded to by finding other streams of revenue. Hence lots of shiny new accommodation blocks, to extract more revenue from students.

Hence also lots of recruitment of foreign students, whose fees are not capped.

Problem solved, then? Not really.

Because the government and its arms-length agencies don’t really like this international recruiting. The OfS has written earlier this year to various institutions that have ‘too many’ such students to explain themselves, while from the New Year most such students will no longer be able to bring dependants with them while they study.

Even my own institution is thinking it needs to get into the international in-person market as a way to improve finances, despite its very particular profile and nature as a distance-learning provider.

All of which points to what might be termed in classic British euphemism as a bit of a mess.

As so often, I bring problems, not solutions. Education policy and its connection to economic and regional development seem to have become rather caught up in the (mild by US standards) British culture wars, be that over immigration or free speech or trans rights.

Whether any government is able to find a way forward on this is very much up in the air, especially in terms of cross-party agreement about what to do. Which suggests that things are likely to get more difficult before they can improve.