The new academic year has begun amid rows over soaring student debt, the size of vice-chancellors’ salaries and the modern value of a degree. What’s the mood at freshers’ week in Liverpool?
By Friday afternoon, in Liverpool’s universities, freshers’ week was just starting to feel a bit stale. The farewells to family already seemed like ancient history, while the city’s new intake of 17,000 students appeared to have mostly followed an intense journey from bewildered to boozy to bonded. They wandered campuses in tight groups, mingling accents. Along with the inductions and official welcomes, some had negotiated an arms race of “celebrity” club nights: the University of Liverpool boasted the appearance of Love Island’s Marcel Somerville, Liverpool Hope offered Made in Chelsea star Jamie Laing.
After all that excitement, Liverpool students had been offered address wristbands to remind them where they lived after long nights out. Now they had their bearings, there was a sense of three years about to start in earnest. Freshers’ week was once quite a rarefied rite of passage; it’s now a transition shared by nearly half of all 18-year-olds across the country. Over the last 30 years, our universities have engaged in a radical experiment in growth. In 1990 there were 46 universities in the UK educating about 350,000 students. Now there are at least 130, accommodating more than two million.
Liverpool has historically been in the vanguard of changes in higher education. It was the subject of the controversial Redbrick University, written under a pseudonym by Edgar Allison Peers, a professor of Spanish at the university, and came to be a shorthand for the civic ambition of universities in our industrial cities.
In the 1970s and 1980s when universities, with their guarantees of free tuition and maintenance grants, became a reliable escape route from class expectation, it was in Liverpool that Willy Russell’s Rita was educated (Russell himself followed a similar path from hairdresser to teacher training at what is now Liverpool Hope University).
Each era has generated a different answer to the old question of what universities are for. We have gone from requiring them to be seats of divinity, to cradles of the Enlightenment, to brains of the industrial society, to engines of social mobility. If you were to listen to the current terms of that debate, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that the prosaic answer our own decade has arrived at is this: above all, we want universities to be value for money.
The crises of funding that were the result of the ambitious rise in student numbers have had a range of effects. The sudden shift of the burden from taxpayer to student debt was designed to be linked to a drive for a sliding scale of provision – with elite institutions charging the maximum for highly resourced courses at one end, to younger universities and less-subscribed courses setting fees at a lower level.
In a spectacular example of naive policy, and in the absence of a cap on student numbers, every degree course in England and Wales now costs students £9,250 a year (or 9p in each pound of earnings over £21,000 for 30 years, when the debt is cancelled).
That equation has shaped the outcome of the last two general elections. The broken pledge on tuition fees all but wiped out the Liberal Democrats as a credible force in 2015 and – after Jeremy Corbyn’s promises to students past and present to erase debt – nearly unseated Theresa May’s government in June.
During the next fortnight of party conferences that £9,250 will again be the figure on many lips, as Labour looks to cement its support in student towns (and nearly every town is now a student town) and the Tories look to find ways to escape the unsustainable electoral fact of loans with 6.1% interest rates and rising.
Funding policy has created many unforeseen consequences. One of the more predictable perhaps is a fundamental shift in students’ expectations. On Friday morning I sat with Yasmin Ibrahim, president of the students’ union at Liverpool John Moores University.
She suggested that a new mood prevailed among the 6,000-undergraduate intake. It was reflected in the freshers’ week she and her committee had organised. “We wanted to run at least as many events that are non-drinking as well as drinking,” she says, partly on the basis that in her experience international students (“even the Australians”) are almost universally shocked and excluded by the emphasis on alcohol. But also because fees have focused minds on what the next three years are for.
Ibrahim, who graduated in psychology in the summer, was among the first students faced with a £9,000-a-year charge. Her older siblings had to pay a third of that. Did she feel she got value for money? “To be honest,” she says. “I didn’t feel I got my £27,000 worth.”
She had been running an induction session with new undergraduates before we speak. Do they talk about their degree in financial terms also? “I have heard people saying, ‘I am spending 27 grand on this’. It’s a lot of money and they expect a lot back.”
The big bucks of that expectation eventually stop with university vice- chancellors. Lord Adonis, who was the architect of the £3,000 supplementary tuition fees system introduced by Labour in 2006, has spent the summer, mostly through Twitter, trying to expose not only the “cartel” operated by universities in setting maximum fees for their degree courses, but also to link it by implication to the “greed” of rising vice-chancellors’ salaries.
It seems impossible to justify some of the more extreme numbers – the £451,000 salary of the chancellor of Bath University, Dame Glynis Breakwell, the average £494 a night Dame Julia Goodfellow of Kent University spent on hotel bills – just as it is impossible to explain away the inflationary pay and perks of almost any chief executive in our culture of well-remunerated remuneration committees.
There are political ironies in this, though. In withdrawing the bulk of public funding, successive governments have invited universities to think of themselves as businesses, forced to exist in an invented marketplace, to “compete for talent” and all the rest. Now that they are behaving just like businesses, and adopting the cult of the CEO, they are reminded post facto that they were supposed to be restrained 1950s public servants all along.
In the past week I have spoken to the vice-chancellors of two of Liverpool’s universities who are, in different ways, at the sharper end of some of these trends. Janet Beer took up her post at the University of Liverpool in 2015 and in August became president of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ professional body.
Vice-chancellor Janet Beer, who is paid £300,500, identifies a new dedication to study she doesn’t recall from her own undergraduate days.
Beer earns, as the Liverpool Echo has it, “the eye-watering” sum of £300,500. Her background as an academic is in research into the American novelist Edith Wharton, who once wrote: “Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope … ” Balancing acts are second nature to Beer. Ask her what the value of her institution is, and she will talk educational ideals and the promotion of excellence, but she also has a ready raft of figures to make its financial case. “This university alone put £652 million gross value added per year into the city region economy and one in 57 jobs depends to the university.”
When I suggest those sound like the figures to tell politicians, she relaxes a bit and tells the more rounded story of the university’s clinical trials that are potentially saving lives at Alder Hey children’s hospital and her excitement at a new materials innovation factory, created in partnership with Unilever.
Though she doesn’t necessarily make the link with the idea of student debt concentrating undergraduate minds, Beer identifies a new dedication to study that she doesn’t recall from her own undergraduate days (at Reading). In a conversation with the universities minister, Jo Johnson, she found herself asked to make the case for students being “more businesslike”.
Two anecdotes came to mind. One was hearing a president of the students’ union observe how “the bars are empty, the venues are empty and you can’t get a seat in the library”. The other came from one of the cleaners in the Liverpool halls of residence, who told her today’s students seemed so much more diligent. What was her evidence? “They are up for breakfast and there is no sick in the bins any more.”
Beer does not deny that with increased fees have come increased demands: “students rightly expect the IT to be up to date, they expect the library to be open 24 hours a day, which it is.” But undergraduates “are never consumers in the classroom. It has to be more of a partnership than that.” They are there partly “to make their heads hurt a bit”, she says, rather than to effect a financial transaction.
Though she acknowledges scrutiny of executive pay as a fact of her life, Beer fears tabloid headline figures will drown out any debate. She points out that vice-chancellors are often not the best paid people in a university. “We had a case recently where a brilliant clinical researcher with ties to the area, who was earning £400,000 a year in an American university, was willing to come home much less,” she says. There were six months of negotiations to bring the researcher’s team – world-leading in terms of vaccine development – over here. “Then”, Beer says, “the minute we took up references the American university just doubled all of their salaries …” We work, she says, predictably but honestly, “in a global market”.
To thrive, British universities have been encouraged to use a precarious growth model, leveraging greater investment through increasing student numbers and increasing fees, and hoping a natural limit is never reached.
There can be few more vivid examples of that growth than that nurtured by John Cater at Edge Hill University, in the Liverpool suburb of Ormskirk. Cater, the longest-serving vice-chancellor in Britain (who earns, according to the Echo, an even more “eye-watering” £324,000), has presided over one of the more remarkable stories of university expansion. He took up his post in 1993, though he has worked at Edge Hill since 1979, when the roots of the college as the first provider of non-denominational teacher training for women were still evident.
Having narrowly survived a cull of teacher training colleges, Edge Hill has ridden successive waves of reform to become university of the year in the Times Higher Education Awards three years ago, only a decade after achieving university status. In Cater’s time the student body has grown from 2,000, who commuted in, to upwards of 15,000, many of whom are residential.
The university still draws a large proportion of its students from disadvantaged families in the local area “but there is no merit in plucking kids off council estates, and then seeing them all drop out, as we used to”, Cater says. He borrowed a concept from the US of a “sticky campus”. Edge Hill started doing small things to create deeper connection: putting sofas outside tutors’ offices, installing catering in all the lecture buildings, open-access IT everywhere. Then it created an arts centre and a sports centre and built 2,500 flats on site. Cater added faculty after faculty, each time increasing the student body. Retention rates at the university are now more than 90%.
For all Edge Hill’s achievements, it remains odd that students are required to take on the same debt to study history in Ormskirk as to study medicine at Oxford. Did they have debates internally as to whether to charge the full whack?
“We did,” Cater says. “But if I look at our programmes in biotechnology, or film and TV production, they are all costing us around £14,500 per student a year to deliver. It’s also true to say that delivering a course in law or English costs us less than £9,000. Universities don’t shout about it, but in practice there is always cross-subsidy.”
The other thing he doesn’t really want to shout about is his own pay, consolidated on 38 years of increments and performance targets. “It depends on your comparators,” he says, “but in the end a very good vice-chancellor”, – he modestly does not include himself in that description – “is probably worth the money and more, and a bad vice-chancellor probably costs his or her university money.”
For the first time (in a year that did not include a rise in fees), the growth in applications to Edge Hill along with universities in general stalled this year. Cater puts some of it down to a falling rollcall of 18-year-olds, but also on a slight decline in foreign students (mostly, in Edge Hill’s case, from Ireland). He has no idea whether that trend will continue, though Tory plans for a “clampdown” on foreign students ( … who do they think they are, coming over here subsidising our kids’ futures, imbibing our culture, sharing their enthusiasms, creating lasting bonds with our nation … ) suggest it might. A sizeable chunk of Cater’s budget already goes on 37 outreach programmes to attract students. He has no doubt the effort is justified. “I have yet to hear a politician stand up and say, ‘We want a less educated workforce. And I have yet to hear a parent say, ‘We want fewer people in university, so my son or daughter will forgo their place’.”
Along with all the expectations among freshers, you sense plenty of that implied pride and ambition. Liverpool’s main university campuses are just off Hope Street and, despite everything, that feels about right. Despite a challenging summer, Beer still confesses to excitement at going around her halls of residence, “trying to settle people in”. The next round of that welcome began at her university yesterday with an open day for 13,000 prospective students and their families. “For all the noise, people are still putting their faith in higher education,” she says. “And people still have positive and high motives for the commitment. We need to be kinder and more supportive as a nation of that, rather than constantly expressing the politics of envy and begrudging.”
That is unarguable, but you sense that over the next political fortnight there will be plenty of those latter sentiments. In his recent book, Speaking of Universities, the Cambridge academic Stefan Collini makes the argument that the default language used to debate higher education inevitably sets the terms of our ambition for it. “If talk about universities represents them as being principally institutions that provide narrowly vocational training for employment”, he writes, “and if the language we use about students represents them as being consumers who shop in the educational supermarket … then those are the kinds of universities and the kind of education we shall end up with.”
It is worth remembering, in this sense, that in the first 750 years of their existence our universities did not become among the most respected and copied institutions in the world on the evidence of engagement surveys. They did so by a commitment to quality in research and to open-ended inquiry. The University of Liverpool alone can boast 10 Nobel prize winners – double that of China.
As well as desperately making sure that this year’s undergraduates pay their way, we might do well to hold fast to the belief that one of those students, this week finding their way home with the aid of a wristband, might yet be Nobel winner number 11.
START OF TERM REPORT
As concern grows about students’ increasing debt burden, vice-chancellors’ pay has come under scrutiny. In July the former education minister, Lord Adonis, called for an inquiry and pointed to the case of Glynis Breakwell of the University of Bath, who was named in a recent survey as Britain’s highest-paid vice-chancellor. This year Breakwell’s pay rose 11% to £451,000, while there was a 1.1% cap on non-managerial staff salaries.
The University of Bath said at the time that Breakwell’s pay is in line with that of longstanding vice-chancellors elsewhere and reflects her track record at the university.
The universities minister, Jo Johnson, has told universities that in future they will have to justify exceptionally high salaries to the Office for Students, a new regulatory body that comes into force next year.
Jeremy Corbyn’s gains in the general election in June were partly attributed to his success in reaching out to young voters through his promise to scrap tuition fees and look at ways of writing off existing graduate debt.
Since then, Adonis, the architect of the last Labour government’s education reforms, has called for fees to be scrapped, calling them a “Frankenstein’s monster”.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that doing so would be cheaper than previously suggested, adding to mounting pressure on the government. Johnson has hit back at critics, saying that the system is fair and equitable.
The government has argued that the cost of going to university is justified by higher graduate earnings. But dramatic increases in the number of young people studying has led to fears that the value of a degree is falling.
Andreas Schleicher, the education and skills director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, warned this month that earnings for UK graduates did not provide as good a return on their investment in their education as elsewhere.
This year the government included graduate employment statistics in a controversial new measure used to assess teaching quality in higher education. Many academics say it’s unfair to judge teaching on this basis, since job prospects will be affected by a range of other factors.
The removal of the cap on the number of students that universities can recruit has created intense competition between institutions. While some universities have expanded rapidly, others have seen their numbers shrink.
This summer the University and College Union warned that at least 16 universities have proposed redundancy programmes for academic staff, including some in the elite Russell Group.