DOMINIC SANDBROOK: Universities beg for bailout after over-expansion

A first-class degree in greed and ineptitude: Our universities are facing financial chaos and begging for a bailout after years of over-expansion and fat-cat salaries. So will they finally learn their lesson, asks DOMINIC SANDBROOK

Have you ever wondered what a perfect storm looks like? If so, just take a look at Britain’s universities.

Only a few years ago our higher education institutions were among the best in the world. 

But now, crippled by political mismanagement, institutional corruption and shameless greed, they stand on the brink of disaster.

The Government rejected the universities’ request for a £2.2 billion bailout to help them cope with the coronavirus lockdown (file image)

Yesterday, the Government rejected the universities’ request for a £2.2 billion bailout to help them cope with the coronavirus lockdown. 

Instead, ministers told them to carry on charging students a full £9,250 a year for online tuition.

Predictably, many students were not impressed.

‘I pay tuition fees to go to my university in person, to be taught at my university in person,’ one young man told the BBC. ‘Expecting students to pay full fees for a service that they aren’t receiving is frankly insulting.’

You can, of course, see what he means. Other institutions, such as private schools, are also offering online lessons, but have cut their fees. 

So it’s hardly unreasonable to expect the universities to follow suit.

The problem, though, is that without those tuition fees, the universities are facing financial meltdown — and the impact of the coronavirus is only part of the story.

Disastrous

I’ve been writing about the higher education sector in the Mail for years. On every occasion I receive dozens of anguished letters, not just from parents who feel their children are being cheated, but from academics sickened by their own institutions’ gluttony and ineptitude.

The truth is that the virus crisis has ignited a bonfire fuelled not just by greedy vice-chancellors, but by decades of disgraceful political meddling. 

Thirty or forty years ago, Britain’s top universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and various London institutions, represented the international gold standard. They stood for excellence and an elite, in the best sense of the word.

Ministers told universities to charge students a full £9,250 a year for online tuition. Pictured is London Metropolitan University, who closed its doors on Friday March 20 

But then successive governments, Tory and Labour alike, introduced three innovations with disastrous consequences.

First, they launched a misguided campaign to push more youngsters into full-time education, whether they were suitable for it or not. 

Teenagers who would once have done manufacturing apprenticeships or other vocational qualifications were encouraged to disappear to university for three years, even though their degrees (such as the infamous ‘Media Studies’) were rarely worth the paper they were written on.

But did Whitehall want to pay for the expansion? It did not. 

Instead, it asked students to carry some of the financial burden themselves, in the form of tuition fees. (Actually, they aren’t really ‘fees’, because students don’t pay until they are earning more than £26,575 a year. But that’s another issue.)

What few people realise is that tuition fees don’t remotely cover the cost of a university education. 

So successive governments have put the universities under unrelenting pressure to cram their lecture halls with foreign students who pay two or three times more because — to put it bluntly — we need their money.

It’s impossible to exaggerate just how cynical this has been. I once met a senior academic at a leading red-brick university who told me, without a hint of shame, that his job was to find out which poverty-stricken, war-torn countries had just been given aid funding, and to make sure they handed it over to his university in student fees.

Other institutions, such as private schools, are also offering online lessons and have cut their fees but many universities have not followed suit (file image)

This is why the coronavirus has been such a particular disaster for Britain’s universities. 

Their entire business model is based on packing in more and more students — not just British students with all those unconditional offers, but foreign students, no matter how unsuited they might be to our higher education system.

Last year, for example, our universities attracted more than 120,000 Chinese students. 

At Liverpool, one in five students is Chinese. The truth is universities have become completely dependent on their overseas ‘customers’.

But now the foreign students have gone home. Many may never return — especially the Chinese. 

And so our universities, which had already borrowed more than £10 billion to pay for swanky new buildings to attract new custom, are staring bankruptcy in the face.

Compounding all this, of course, is the public relations catastrophe of the vice-chancellors, who are widely seen as personifications of incompetence and self-interest.

Students are taking their exams at home and many are open book as young people have missed teaching, first due to strikes and then due to the coronavirus pandemic (file image)

To take merely one example, it may be that George Holmes, the Bentley-driving and yacht-owning vice-chancellor of the University of Bolton, deserves every penny of his £290,000 salary, as well as a £1 million loan for his Edwardian house.

But with his university ranked 125th out of 131 institutions, I can’t help having my doubts.

Flagrant

Indeed, to get a sense of some university leaders’ narcissistic greed and flagrant social irresponsibility, just look at their response to the coronavirus crisis. 

Only under pressure from the media have some vice-chancellors — the heads of Bristol, Nottingham and Edinburgh for example —agreed to trifling cuts in their huge six-figure pay packets.

Yet many vice-chancellors, such as Oxford’s Louise Richardson (£425,000 a year), have refused to accept any pay cut.

At the same time, hundreds of junior academics have been furloughed (ie the taxpayer will meet the bill), part-timers have been pushed out of the door and staff on temporary contracts have been brutally jettisoned.

Yet as anyone involved with universities knows very well, these are the people who do most of the real work, while their bloated superiors luxuriate in their grace and favour mansions.

I could fill every page of today’s paper with other symptoms of decline, from lecture halls so crowded that students listen in the corridors, to overpaid professors who spend most of their time at international conferences and therefore hardly teach.

And sadly, I don’t have the space to get into the intolerant culture fostered by juvenile hard-Left activists, such as the fools at Oxford who have just demanded censorship of ‘ableist, classist and misogynist’ books on their reading lists.

Graduations have been cancelled or postponed for students due to graduate this year due to social distancing rules amid the coronavirus pandemic (file image)

Reform

So what’s the answer? In the short term, I think the Government is probably right. Since the universities’ finances are so dire, they have no choice but to keep charging full fees. 

And for some students, online learning may actually be a blessing in disguise, teaching them to work independently and think for themselves.

In truth, though, the entire sector needs root and branch reform. For example, the antiquated admissions system, with students applying before they get their results, has no equivalent anywhere in Europe and should be entirely revamped.

There are too many universities, too many degrees and —let’s be honest — far too many students. 

The current ‘market’ system, in which universities compete to attract students with fancy campuses, inflated grades and dumbed-down degrees, is beyond a joke.

The cult of political correctness has become a poisonous betrayal of the principle of free speech. 

And the obsession with attracting foreign money is a travesty of everything higher education is supposed to represent.

So the Government should grasp this opportunity. Clear out the top layer of corrupt, greedy management. Close down some universities, and force others to merge.

Change the admissions system and revamp degree classifications. Stop ripping off our youngsters with worthless degrees. 

Sort out the tuition fees shambles and stop importing so many foreign students, and put British teenagers first for a change.

And above all, return to the relentless pursuit of academic excellence.

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