Smoke & Mirrors: The HE 'Support' Package

When we enter unchartered waters and experience an unprecedented use of the word unprecedented, it is impossible to ignore how sector challenges and movements have an impact on our own local situation.

Royal Holloway is not experiencing the challenges associated with Covid-19 alone and decisions that dictate the experience of students are happening outside of the Royal Holloway bubble as well as within.

Earlier this week, the government responded to Universities UK’s proposal for investment into the sector. This proposal attempted to put forward the key challenges facing Higher Education institutions and recommended mitigating actions. So what is happening now, and what does this mean for you?

Tuition Fees

In addition to Universities UK putting forward their proposal, the National Union of Students (NUS) similarly put their foot forward in launching the Student Safety Net campaign. Among other demands, NUS has called for urgent support for students in the short-term and beyond in order to minimise the damage to the student population. Last month, which seems an age ago, myself, Kate (VP Education) and Sophia (VP Societies & Media) attended NUS Conference (virtually) where we voted to approve an emergency motion on responding to coronavirus. This motion set the plans for national lobbying to protect students.

The government’s response has firmly stated that tuition fees should remain the same, which seems the wrong way around considering there are still question marks nationally over delivery and student experience. Therefore, following on from this, we have been in quick communication with NUS over the next direction of travel – querying when other options such as the cancelling of debt and removing the interest rates on said debt will be considered.

Where is the bailout?

One word that has been doing the rounds in discussions on supporting universities is ‘bailout’ – personally, I think this is the wrong terminology. Higher Education is possibly one of the most important sectors in society, especially right now; it is where world-leading research is being conducted, where contributions are being made across disciplines, and where the future of our country is educated. The loss of income from accommodation, commercial outlets, and uncertainty over student recruitment next year has meant uncertain times lie ahead for the sector, with some in a precarious financial position. The sector doesn’t need a short-term bailout, it needs long-term investment.

The headlines may say that the government support package is £2.6 billion, but the devil is in the detail. In reality, the government has not responded to the longer-term concerns from the sector. The £2.6 billion figure is in relation to bringing money forwards, this will mean that institutions will receive their usual annual money from tuition fees earlier (NB this will not have an impact on your payments). A similar movement has occurred with research funding, £100 million of funding has been brought forward, rather than seeing new money. Therefore, they have solely treated the financial challenges in the sector as a cash-flow problem, which is only part of the story.

Student Choice

One of the main pillars of UK Higher Education is ensuring that students have a choice. This essentially is the promise that prospective students will be able to have numerous options of where to go and study the course that they desire. A couple of years ago, student number caps (limits on how many students universities can recruit) were lifted which meant that the ‘market’ of Higher Education became competitive, but also enabled a greater level of student choice. Due to the unprecedented (there is that word again) situation, number controls have been temporarily re-introduced. This means that institutions can only recruit within 5% of their forecast numbers – this is an attempt to offset any institutions that will try to over-recruit in the home student market in order to ‘make up’ the predicted decline in new international students. Whilst such a measure is likely to be necessary, there are still some burning challenges.

How can student choice still remain at the heart of admissions? How will institutions ensure fair access to university for students from all backgrounds? How will unsavoury recruitment practices from some in the sector be curtailed? And, will the 5% leeway have any effect if the national student population doesn’t grow?

What now?

Many are hoping that the government response is simply a start, holding out hope that further measures and investment will follow. Of course, this must be understood in a context where the effects of Covid-19 are rippling through the economy and society, yet there is only so long that the Higher Education sector can wait. The failure to send a strong message of support for institutional sustainability and the failure to provide reassurance for prospective and returning students is quite alarming, one can only hope that some progress is around the corner.

We continue to have discussions with the University to plan ways that we can ensure your experience at Royal Holloway is the best that it can be. If there are any particular issues that are troubling you right now, then please do get in touch with us and we can raise these for you, or we may be able to update you on areas being worked on. Additionally, we will continue to be in communication with NUS to ensure that all measures are explored to safeguard students nationally.