To bail out, or not to bail out?

By Charles Kershaw

Today, the day of writing, marks the end of my time at university. It comes with little fanfare, despite the warm sunshine, as I sit in my room hundreds of miles from Durham while I submit my final exam. An uncertain future awaits, given the current state of the world and, admittedly, my lack of any real preparation for life post-grad. But I find myself lamenting the poor future of all those who haven’t yet finished their degrees, or are about to start them, and the future of higher education.

It seems inevitable across the country and around the world massive amounts of profit will be lost due the coronavirus crisis. As the UK over the next few months plunges into what will likely be one of the worst recessions in our history, universities will be not be exempt from the damage— billions of pounds are likely to be lost, thanks to the movement of more courses online, the number of international students who will likely choose not to return, and likely many from the UK as well, with 19% of students in a Guardian survey saying they were no longer expecting to go to higher education in autumn this year.

[blockquote author=”” ]Universities… are these days are run more like businesses than centres for education[/blockquote]

Despite this, ministers have pledged that they will not bail out universities, but instead £2.6bn in fees will be paid early, instead of in autumn, with £100m going towards research, and students having to pay full price for a partially online education. This has caused concern both from student groups such as UCU, who argue that the the government response has not been sufficient, and from the universities themselves. Even within the government there was division over the plan, the Treasury on one side against a university bail-out and the Department for Education arguing for a stabilisation package which would offset the massive losses. It’s understandable why this decision was made: the Treasury are already borrowing unprecedented amounts of money in order to keep the economy alive and allow for employers to use their furlough scheme, and thus expect that universities—which are these days are run more like businesses than centres for education—  use their profits to keep themselves afloat until the pandemic’s threat subsides.

[blockquote author=”” ]85% of working students would need additional financial support[/blockquote]

So, universities will have to foot the bill for this one, along with the students who decide to return, with limited access to uni social life and the full breadth of the university experience, including access to resources and professors. An NUS survey also found that 85% of working students would need additional financial support due to losing their jobs because of the pandemic. Cuts to university spending will most likely have to be made, and so while the “product” sold to us by universities, as NUS president Zamzam Ibrahim states, diminishes, students are “left out in the cold” with no means of compensation. This will only be exacerbated by the university’s financial losses, negatively impacting quality of education.

Higher education is in desperate need of restructure, and the crisis affecting the world right now has only highlighted this fact. The benefits of a bail-out far outweigh the negatives: universities – which create highly skilled workers in all different fields – stimulate our economy, and might help to drag us more quickly out of the oncoming recession. In the long run we should go a step further and end tuition fees altogether. Tuition fees were only brought in relatively recently under the New Labour government, and in Scotland it is a matter of pride that they do not have to pay for tuition. After all, fees have increased, leaving post-graduates in greater piles of debt, while at the same time staff have faced increasingly worse working conditions and no substantial rise in salary.

Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the post-war Attlee government’s book, shunning privatisation of key services (look at the mess that privatisation has made of our response already, especially in regards to PPE shortages), embracing the support that the country is going to desperately need coming out of this crisis, and providing the widespread support and funding required for our public services. Universities should also be included under this umbrella. There is a lot of discussion about what “normal” will look like after lockdown, and implementing these kinds of measures might see our “normal” being better in the long run than before. That may be a rather optimistic outlook, but we would certainly be putting ourselves on the right track.

Photo: Number 10 via Flickr.

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