Government support package for universities disappoints

On the 4 May, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced a package of measures to protect the higher education sector from the impact of coronavirus. Although they were drawn from proposals from the universities sector, and were intended to safeguard students and help universities, many fear that the financial measures do not go far enough and could in fact, end up introducing more problems into the sector.

The package will enable English higher education providers to stabilise university admissions this autumn, by capping the recruitment of full-time undergraduate UK and EU students for 2020/21 at a 5% additional margin. The Government will also have the discretion to support the country’s vital public services by allocating an additional 10,000 places, 50% of those ring fenced for nursing, midwifery, or allied health courses. £100 million of quality-related research funding will be brought forward, along with an estimated £2.6 billion in tuition fee payments to help manage financial risks over the autumn; Universities are also eligible to apply for Government business support schemes, including the Coronavirus Job Retention scheme. The Government is considering how the International Education strategy may be updated, in order for the UK to continue to attract overseas students. Universities minister, Michelle Donelan, stated that the package would “boost support for students, stabilise the admissions system and ease pressures on universities’ finances”.

However, criticism for the package has grown amidst claims that they have not gone far enough to protect universities and that student experience may suffer. Mary Curnock Cook, a former chief executive of UCAS, argues that the student number cap is “a cap on student choice” and will result in lower overall recruitment. Ms Cook has suggested that “[she’d] prefer to see students receive fee rebates, recognising only partial delivery of the student experience, with universities continuing to receive the full tuition fee to support the costs of maintaining mothballed services”, a petition that UEA Student Union officers Alicia Perez and Sophie Atherton have endorsed. Dr. Gavan Conlan, a partner at London Economics, argues that the new system is likely to “have a negative impact on a number of Higher Education Institutes that might have weathered the pandemic relatively well otherwise.”

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, stated that the package “does not deliver the protection or stability that students, staff and the communities they serve so desperately need”.

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Dolly Carter

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October 2021
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