Public higher education faces the biggest challenge in its history, as the Covid-19 public health crisis has accelerated the financial and financialised catastrophe that had been on the horizon for the last decade. Even prior to Covid-19, universities faced compounding, deep-set problems: a decade of austerity, deteriorating working conditions, rapid marketisation, and funding challenges posed by Brexit.

The higher education sector is vital not only to the hundreds of thousands of jobs but to the principles of shared, common knowledge. Government intervention is needed and fast. But it is imperative that any sector bailout does not merely apply a sticky plaster approach, and instead is used to root higher education in a new value system: one that dismantles the current model of deepening financialisaton, debt, growing workplace insecurity, rocketing pay at the top and is instead centred on collaboration, community and social enrichment, creating publicly funded, publicly owned centres of research and development. 

This report looks at the history of the sector’s privatisation, the response of different sector groups to coronavirus, and considers conditions for bailouts that defend and extend the idea of higher education as a democratic public good. The focus of this report is on universities in England - education is a devolved matter, and as such it is only for English HEIs that Government plans have been released. The principles underlying the report, however, could be applied to devolved policy-making too. 

With bailouts must come terms that defend workers’ and students’ rights and extend democracy within university communities. Rather than allowing the stripping of public assets, we ought to act in line with what we might term the Williams’ principle: Raymond Williams’ maxim that we must view education as something  precious, something “which we should have to produce a special argument to limit rather than a special argument to extend.”

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Higher Education in the UK

When we think of higher education, we usually imagine eighteen-year olds going off to study for three year, usually residential, degree programmes. Even when the funding of universities is discussed, it is usually through the lens of the cost to the individual student: how much should they pay, how much should be covered by the state, how much maintenance loan should they receive and so on. These questions are important ones, especially when students attending university in England and Wales pay around £9,000 in fees per year of study. However, the focus on what is good or bad, or fair or unfair for an individual student, hides the tricky questions of how higher education as an entire sector is funded, how this has changed in recent decades, and what this means for the governance of universities. 

Higher education is a big part of the economy: in the UK the sector employs over 262,700 people[1] at a total of 164 higher education institutions, with 130 in England, 19 in Scotland, 10 in Wales, and 5 in Northern Ireland.[2] Research has shown that universities bring significant economic benefits to English regions, producing between 2.6% and 3.8% of total regional Gross Value Added in each region. The total revenue of higher education in England is £23.3 billion.[3]

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Higher education for who? A brief history

Universities are funded through public spending on research and teaching, student fees, private research funding, loans, returns on endowments and donations. In the academic year 2018/19, the total income to UK universities from tuition fees was £17.67 billion. £11.4 billion of this was from UK-domiciled students with £1.06 billion from EU students, and £5.47 billion from non-EU international students who are charged higher fees. In addition to fees, universities received £1.84 billion in teaching grants. Older universities tend to be less reliant on income from tuition fees: fees make up around 15% of Cambridge’s annual income, compared to over 80% of NottinghamTrent’s income.[4] As public funding has receded, universities have taken on large private loans. While funding from research is a substantial part of university funding, it has remained relatively stable (if reduced, and at threat from Brexit), compared to the volatility of fees funding. Even at the most elite universities, donations are a relatively small proportion of income. At Oxford for example, tuition fees represent a much larger part of income than donations at £354 million and £97.7 million respectively in the year 2018/19.[5]

For the vast majority of their history, universities in the UK were only open to a tiny segment of the population – wealthy men. Minor concessions were made in the nineteenth century, with places opened for (some) women and (some) religious minorities. A huge expansion of university access began after the Second World War, where, as common in post-war social democratic settlements, enhanced opportunities and shared entitlements became anew common-sense. All students who had reached the required standard were able to attend university. Alongside provision for “standard-age” university students, the Open University, an ambitious project, founded by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government, under the direction of the pioneering socialist Jennie Lee, was intended to provide distance learning for all. In 1960, about 5% of 18-year olds would take up a university place, by 2010 this had risen to just under 50%.[6] The pace of change intensified in the late 1990s, with the biggest uptick taking place under Tony Blair, when participation rose from under 30% to 50% in 13 years.[7]

Marketising education: Recent policy changes and their impacts 

This model – publicly-funded three- or four-year residential degree programmes – became, in the context of an insurgent neoliberalism, politically and financially untenable. Moreover, actual provision remains hugely stratified by class, in terms not only of access to particular universities but also to this entire model: 17% of undergraduates in 2019, primarily working-class ones remain at their family home rather than attending residential courses.[8] Despite access and inclusion programmes on the part of universities, older, wealthier universities are dominated by students from what are euphemistically termed ‘traditional backgrounds’. By contrast, ‘non-traditional’ are clustered in the newer universities, particularly the “new universities”, created by the dismantling of division between universities and polytechnics in 1992.  In the years 1989 to 1997, Government funding per student was reduced by 36%. Following recommendations by the sponsored Dearing Report, Blair introduced the first “top-up” fees in 1997. These were trebled in 2004, and, infamously, under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition fees were trebled again, rising to just under £10,000. As well as tripling fees, the Coalition Government removed the teaching grant for humanities and social sciences, with the aim of encouraging students to apply for “value-for-money” STEM courses.

The 2010 higher education reforms were a continuation of an already existing drift towards marketisation and acceptance of the cultural and political logics of neoliberalism rather than an extreme break, however, they did rapidly change higher education. In particular, lifting the cap on the number of student places available in a context where the number of students a university attracted (down to the last number) was tied to the funding from fees it could receive, in a context with vastly reduced teaching grant and research funding, meant an intensification of competition between universities for students. This intensification of competition did not, as its architects had promised, improve standards of teaching and research. Competition for scant funding instead meant the proliferation of dubious metrics and perverse incentives instead meant a deterioration of working conditions, overcrowded lecture halls, cuts to student support, and the prioritisation of a building spree to attract more and more students. All of this took place in the context of a dip in the number of 18-year olds – falling by 75,000 between 2010 and early 2020[9] – squeezing funding further.  

Reduced funding teamed with the need for increased spending meant universities were opened up to private companies, including private finance in an unprecedented way. The first and most visible of these was in the massive building projects universities embarked on following the 2010 reforms.The second was the private finance schemes that funded capital expenditure. In the immediate years after the reform, universities were spending several billion pounds a year on capital expenditure. Between 2014 and 2019, universities spent £8.8 billion on capital projects, nearly as much as the entire cost of the 2012 London Olympics.[10]Many of these new buildings were built in partnership with private companies.Royal Holloway’s £58m Emily Davison library is part-financed by Pricoa Capital. Pricoa is the biggest private funder in the UK higher education sector and has lent around £750m to universities over three years, including £200 million to the University of Bristol and £55 million to the University of Surrey.[11] Many of these glossy, privately-financed buildings were student accommodation:the number of private student accommodation rooms increased by a third between2014-19.[12] These private halls tend to be more expensive than university-managed halls.

As campuses expanded, so did the sector’s debt. In the decade 2010-2020, university debt has trebled, rising to £12 billion, most from private placements.[13] This debt is not evenly spread out between universities, taken as a whole, the sector regularly runs a surplus over more than £1 billion.[14] In this decade, universities were made profitable to private companies who were able to profit from decades of accrued public spending. While direct privatisation has, so far, been rare,[15] the landscape established by the 2010 reforms turned universities into platform-hosts for all kinds of parasitic private endeavours.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, universities were already facing a funding blackhole. Between the impacts of Brexit reducing funding possibilities and the Government’s Augar Review recommending lower fees with no replacement funding, disaster was already on the horizon. Public bailouts fromConservative Education Secretaries, unafraid of participating in a resurgent right populism against universities on the issues of alleged violations of freedom of speech[16] and“micky-mouse”[17] or “poor value for money”[18] degrees[19], seem unlikely without significant strings attached.

Universities had borrowed more on the assumption that student numbers, particularly in the lucrative income from international students, would remain buoyant. Covid-19 has, in an instant, dissolved that possibility.

The Covid-19 University: What has been offered so far? 

Although all universities, with perhaps the notable exception of its two wealthiest outliers – Oxford and Cambridge - face a significant funding crisis in the wake of Covid-19, universities are differently exposed. The predictions for the sector are dire. The Office forBudget Responsibility estimated that education will be the sector hit hardest by the virus, predicting an up to 90% springtime reduction in output compared to 35% for the economy overall.[20] Grouping universities by impact is not entirely straightforward. Firstly, there’s the fug of league tables and reputations to contend with. Rather than following the self-declared designation of the Russell Group as the leading research universities, Vikki Boliver proposes a set of four distinct “clusters” of higher education institutions. The first identifiable group is Oxford and Cambridge, together having assets over £3billion, more than the £2billion of all other universities in the UK combined. The second cluster is a mixture of the remaining 22 Russell Group universities and 17 additional pre-92universities. The third is a larger group of the 13 remaining pre-92 universities and 54 new, post-92 universities. The final group contains 19 new universities.[21] Boliver reminds us that this fourth cluster is

“far less well-resourced than all other universities, and the student populations they serve are much less academically successful and much less socioeconomically advantaged. As such, it is these universities whose continued existence is most imperilled by the growing privatisation and marketisation of the UK higher education system.”

As post-2010 competition for student places grew, higher and middle-ranking universities crowded out the market, taking on more and more students, leaving lower-ranking institutions vulnerable to department closures and restructures. In January of this year, for example, the University ofSunderland ended its modern foreign language, history and politics degrees. The previous year, they had been unable to recruit any students to the languages programme and a mere 14 history students.[22] By contrast, UCL’s History Department increased its total number of undergraduate students from 347 in the year 2010/11 to 631 in the year2019/20. If competition for UK-domiciled undergraduate students is not sufficiently curbed by the Government, and without additional support, universities towards the bottom of these four clusters will be in very serious danger.  

Universities in clusters 1 and 2 are more impacted by reductions in the number of international students. This risk is strongest for universities whose post-2010 reform growth strategy relied on the recruitment of international students. In modelling undertaken by London Economics based on a conservative estimate of a 16% reduction in UK-domiciled students, a 47% reduction in EU students (who currently pay the same fees as UK students), and 47% reduction in international students from outside the EU[23]. This is a 24% reduction in total students. There are different financial impacts per cluster: in Cluster 1, the average impact was estimated to be £42 million per institution compared to estimates of £37 million, £13 million and £6 million per institution in Clusters 2, 3 and 4respectively. Without Government intervention, this leaves a £2.47 billion funding gap, equivalent to 240 job losses per institution, a total of 30,280 job losses, and a further 32,340 jobs lost indirectly outside of higher education.

This summer, universities face a significant loss of income from conferences and other events that can no longer go ahead.This shortfall is nothing compared to the billions of pounds lost for the next academic year in student fees. Universities have responded to this shortfall predictably: emergency budgets with spending and hiring freezes and cuts to budgets for casualised teaching staff.[24]  Redundancies have already begun, restructures and even mergers seem likely. Already, thousands of jobs have been cut, with announcements made at Liverpool, York, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford, Newcastle, Glasgow, Warwick, Goldsmiths, SOAS, King’s College, Durham, Kent, Sussex, Exeter, and Roehampton, amongst others. It is possible that a second wave of cuts will be made once the dust has settled, and the effective allocation of funding via student fees is apparent.

Campaigns to stop job losses - particularly for casualised staff - have sprung up within and across campuses. Many of these are demanding a fundamental reorientation of higher education, not just shoring up the existing provision, but removing it from under the reign of market forces entirely. The #CoronaContract campaign, whose motion has, at the time of writing, been passed by over a dozen University College Union (UCU)  branches, asks for guaranteed employment for two years for all casualised staff; full and open consultation on any proposed redundancies with confirmation that fixed term staff will not be automatically dismissed, and for protections for post graduate students, including extensions of scholarships and suspension of fees.Elsewhere, the need for cooperation with campus trade unions and for protecting graduate students, particularly self-funded and international students, have been stressed.

The response of employers and the Government has so far focussed on shoring up universities from immediate collapse, but their proposals anticipate far-reaching changes to higher education, including mergers and the sale of university buildings. UniversitiesUK – the self-proclaimed voice of the sector, formerly the Committee of Vice-Chancellors – has asked for measures to minimise the risks of Covid-19 to universities and to students. These include an increase in research funding, support for the training of key workers including doctors and nurses, and STEM students, support for adult learning and re-skilling, and measures to support retention for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. While important, these demands would do little to address the problems caused by marketisation prior to the current pandemic. For example, UUK has requested a cap on student places in England and Wales for UK and EU students of up to the forecast numbers for the academic year 2020/21 + 5%. If the modelling on the reduced number of Home and EU students taking up places is correct (at 16% and 47% respectively, this would mean that the proposed cap is not a cap at all. The UUK proposals include mergers between universities, further education colleges, and private providers, to ensure “maximisation of value to the taxpayer”.[25]

The UCU has demanded better protection for staff and the sector, prioritising collaboration, and asking that no university should be allowed to fail. To ensure the financial stability of the sector, along with working and learning conditions, they ask for sector-wide agreements on the timing and character of the resumption of teaching for the new year, the pooling of research capacity where there is strategic interest in doing so, and efforts to ensure affected students finish their studies. The union asks for confirmation that furlough arrangements apply to all staff, and asks for UKRI to extend research grants to support retention of staff. In addition to this, a review of casualisation is asked for this. The UCU has also asked theGovernment to cancel the sector’s two key metric exercises – the ResearchExcellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework. The union’s demands force the sector to consider the root causes of the crisis that Covid-19 has escalated – financial vulnerability due to marketisation.

Westminster announced an initial support package for English universities in early April.[26] Their proposals differ little from UUK’s. This initial support is intended to stabilise admissions processes, support students, and provide immediate financial stability to universities. They offer temporary student number caps, in line with UUK’s, an extra 10,000 places, with over 5,000 for nursing or allied health courses, consultation on measures to ensure admissions practices do not negatively affect  “the stability or integrity of the English HE sector”, bringing forward existing research funding, an advance on tuition fee payments – front loading them to the start of the next year. The Department forEducation will consider purchasing university land and buildings where they can be used for new or expanding schools.

They warn that they will only intervene at risk of closure“where there is a case to do so, and only where we believe intervention is possible and appropriate, and as a last resort. In such instances, DfE will be working with HMT and other Government departments to develop a restructuring regime, through which we will review providers’ circumstances and assess the need for restructuring. Where action is required, this will come with attached conditions.”

The Government announcement and UUK’s demands anticipate  closures and mergers. The UCU demands go further than UUK in terms of financial support and they oppose mergers and closures. The limitations of presenting universities as somewhere a particular group of people go to obtain a particular commodified form of education, is clear in both the UUK and the Government response.  

The response so far has merely put the brakes on the collapse of the entire sector and set up committees for its future restructures, land sales to academy chains, and privatisation. It is marketisation that left the sector vulnerable to the crisis thrown up Covid-19, and it is only by ending the failed experiment in marketizing higher education that the sector can be saved. UCU is right to call for an end to the failed metrics of neoliberalism – the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and theResearch Excellence Framework (REF) - this crisis, and the one that’s been brewing in higher education for decades, requires a fundamental reimagining of post-compulsory education. With further Government intervention a near-certainty, we are left with urgent questions: in whose interests should bailouts be carried out? How should we reimagine the purpose and governance of universities?

Whose university is it anyway? Reimagining higher education

Advocates for higher education can, according to RaymondWilliams, be categorised into three groups. The first of these is that of the“public educators”, those who believe that “all members of a society have a natural right to be educated, and that any good society depends on governments accepting this principle as a duty.” In short, those who see education not justas something desirable but something that any society that would like to suppose itself halfway decent must have. Williams, writing in 1961, considers the principles of this group to be broadly supported, showing the extent to which such egalitarian principles have been so thoroughly eroded so quickly.The second defenders of higher education do so for reasons of “old humanism”,viewing universities as the custodians of culture and repositories of human knowledge.  The third group, “industrial trainers”, see higher education as necessary by virtue of providing particular training. Universities need to be all of these and there’s no reason that the future of higher education needs to pick one particular course.[27] We must not accept universities which are merely custodians of an exclusive culture, or instead those that only offer instrumental education. We can imagine and create something more open and more democratic.

Each of Williams’ possible defenders of higher education does so on the basis of some kind of shared societal interest: what a good society should have (particularly for its future generations), what an economy needs, what debt we owe to previous thinkers and the knowledge commons. By contrast, the most common arguments for higher education today focus on what any given individual stands to gain – most usually financially - from them.This assumption is given institutional form in fees. Fees, and particularly high fees place students in an individual and hostile relation to their university: are they getting their money’s worth? This reorientation of relationship, away from collaboration and community, and to mutual distrust, has been on the most successful cultural shocks of neoliberalism. Students are encouraged to be mini-entrepreneurs, worried about the return on their investment, and turning the experience of university into a practice of scrapping the social experience of university for the flexible, entrepreneurial skills needed for the contemporary workplace. In this vision, education becomes an issue of individual enrichment with concern about whether or not degree programmes provide value for money in the form of the return on individual debt.

We need to return thinking about society as a whole to discussion of education. At the level of industrial training: universities must become centres of the development of new green industries, and of publicly funded and publicly owned centres of research and development. They must also provide training and education for life, not just for a brief time in some people’s early twenties. This retraining will be vitally important in the urgent task of reorienting work in a Green New Deal-led recovery to the Covid-19 crisis  

Universities can become truly public, open to people of all ages and classes, moving beyond the securitised and sealed-off campuses and into communities. The idea that education is something undertaken while young must be replaced by a genuinely open programme of re-skilling alongside learning’s sake. As Raymond Williams puts it, “we should regard human learning in a genuinely open way, as the most valuable resource we have and therefore as something which we should have to produce a special argument to limit rather than a special argument to extend.”[28]

One way to foster and defend Williams’ “openness” is through creating or recapturing democratic structures within universities: Universities often have surprisingly democratic structures. Ewan McGaughey, a lecturer inLaw at King’s College London, notes that of “all UK enterprises, universities do the most to promote the right to vote for staff and for students, in selecting representatives on governing bodies.”[29] 

For the “new” universities, per the Education Reform Act 1988, there must be governing bodies with 13 lay members appointed by the board itself, up to two members of academic staff nominated by the academic board, up to two students nominated by students, and one to nine members co-opted by the board. In 2011, the Government proposed the abolition of these governance standards, this was defeated through trade union opposition. Older universities tend to have higher proportions of staff and students in governance bodies. Cambridge University is probably the most democratic of all: The University Council has day-to-day management powers and is elected by staff (16 seats), students (three seats), and existing management (six seats). The Regent House –3,800 members of academic staff – can pass “graces” that bind management. Threats of graces have prompted the University to act on divestment and pensions issues, in the recent UCU strike action. The London School of Economics has a 17-person Council including two students, three staff representatives, and lay representatives. Universities have rules for the appointment, removal and accountability of the governing bodies.  

While these governance structures are more democratic than many other institutions – public or private – they are under attack. The Educational Reform Act of 1992 transferred ownership of former polytechnics from elected councils to governing bodies. It was ruled that the majority of governors should be “independent” – drawn from business.[30]

If we return to the case of Sunderland, amongst representatives from students and academic and support staff, we find a former Senior Partner at Deloitte, a former director of an academy chain, and many other representatives of the corporate world.[31] Given the predominance of corporate voices on senior bodies, it is no surprise that universities are increasingly governed by a business logic above all else. Moreover, when budgets are discussed in formally democratic structures, the conversation is shaped and limited by the terms of university’s loan agreements, or the need to recruit more and more students.  

This drift is intensified by reduced resources. The need to recruit students, take on building projects, and loans, required a coterie of corporate experts, many of whom seem to have bamboozled academics into a half dream of metrics and outputs. Competition between universities and even between departments of the same university for the most basic funding puts strain on the normal functioning of these democratic governance structures. The ability to meaningfully criticise and vote down budgets when a department, or even a university, is at risk of closure, is massively curtailed. As finances dwindle, budget-making and other discretionary powers are centralised rather than made by departments.

Another barrier to the healthy functioning of democratic functions of universities is the sector’s increased financialisaton. Critical accounting work undertaken by Andrew McGettigan on Sussex University’s emergency Covid budget has shown the damage that expansion funded through private finance can cause and how this expansionist approach has shaped its response to Covid-19. Despite its financial health – the University has doubled its income in the past decade and holds over £200 million in unrestricted cash and short-term deposits, a loan of £100m taken out in 2017 for a new life sciences building commits Sussex to running a cash surplus of over £12m every year until 2044. McGettigan notes that it is not clear whether the financial risk associated with these loans is compatible with the University's charitable status.[32]

Many universities will have similar loans with similar terms. The University of Essex, for example, has an agreement with their creditor, Lloyds Bank, that they will not make accounting deficits of more than £0.5m for more than three years in succession[33]. Such loan terms may result in cuts being made for the next academic year with a damaging effect on research and teaching, as well as the loss of thousands of jobs. More generally, these covenants profoundly shape what universities can and cannot do for many years. The financialised university is one with much less scope to become a truly democratic one. There’s much less scope for democratically-passing a budget, or even changing anything that requires spending in a university when loan conditions require that surpluses are run every year. Indeed, financialisaton and the extent to which it is able to bind future action act as a limit on democracy at the level of a firm or other institution, by reducing the scope of what can be decided democratically. If the democratic bodies of universities are left only able to decide between the different kinds of printer paper they are able to choose, they, while remaining formally democratic, become something rather different.

The managerial drift many have described as existing within universities is an old rather than a solely new phenomenon - E.P. Thompson, amongst others, noted its dangerous presence in the first years of Warwick University - but anti-democratic ossification of formally democratic structures is much worsened by the Covid-19 crisis. Firstly, emergency budgets are more likely to be done in secret, with limited consultation of campus trade unions. Secondly, the ability to campaign against them is hampered by social distancing measures. Thirdly, management’s practice of what we might term the “number theatre” of management – the throwing around of hugely detailed and huge numbers, across multiple emails – to give the reassurance that things are under control and that hammer home the message that there is no alternative to whatever cut or restructure is planned.

Without demands for democratisation, the current crisis is likely to massively intensify this process. The following demands are an initial sketch of how the existing institutional governance structures could be repurposed. The intention behind them is to reimagine higher education not merely as a public good, but as one that everyone should be able to access, whether for retraining or to study something entirely “pointless”.  

  1. University councils must be more representative of society at large in selection of lay members, prioritising members of the local community, those with     experience of education, particularly adult education and other “non-traditional” education practices.
  2. Budgets must not be carried out in private: scrutiny by university members and public accountability are vital.
  3. The relative number of student and staff posts – including non-academic worker posts – must be increased. Corporate voices should not be the numerically     dominant ones.
  4. Existing democratic structures must not be bypassed in times of crisis. In such situations, representation for all campus unions, students, and the community, in a collective, democratic project of planning – in the style of the Lucas Plan – is all the more important.
  5. More powers should be given to councils beyond financial scrutiny. Other bodies, open to all students and workers, as well as members of local communities, along the lines of an expanded Regent House, should be created, with powers to bind management.

There is an alternative: demands for emergency university budgets and for reimagining higher education

The advance on fee and research income offered byWestminster is little more than a sticking plaster to solve short-term cashflow problems. Whatever happens in the next financial offer, whether more detailed support and terms and conditions for bailouts, or indeed, if no such offers are made, will be the most important moment in the sector’s history this century.

Universities are differently financially healthy and differently exposed to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, there is money in and for the sector as a whole, it just needs to be redirected. The UK comes joint last in the list of OECD countries in relation to the proportion of public spending as part of overall spending on tertiary education. Only 25% of spending on higher education is public money, totalling a mere 0.5% of GDP. Even in the US,35% of spending on tertiary education is public money[34]. It is entirely possible for things to be different. Indeed, it is only recently that the shift away from public funding for universities took place.  

It is high time to end the failed experiment in marketisation. Universities can and must be turned around; run in the interests of democratic collective education and training, of the common good, or, they can continue to be run in the interest of finance and private education companies.

We must think about higher education as a social good – as are source for anyone to draw on at any point in their lives, as a repository of human knowledge, and as something vital for the future of the economy. In the kind of Green New Deal required to avert climate crisis, universities can become centres for the development of new green technologies and industries.They could provide the re-skilling that will be vitally important in the urgent task of reorienting work in a Green New Deal-led recovery to the coronavirus crisis


1. In the immediate term:

  1. Universities need to review how their transition to online teaching has progressed. There is more to online teaching than merely moving existing classes onto an online platform.
  2. Students’ access to quiet working spaces and decent WiFi is extremely varied and stratified by class. Universities need to do more to support students with     online learning and need new funding to do so. Government action, including bringing broadband into public ownership, is also needed to ensure equal access.
  3. There must be no redundancies, hiring freezes, and the cancellation of the casual teaching posts including graduate teaching assistant positions, must be     overturned. The HE sector needs a jobs guarantee.
  4. Doctoral research has been disrupted by the pandemic. PhD students should be offered blanket extensions, from their institutions and from UKRI, for funding and deadlines. Where necessary, this should include fee waivers.
  5. Universities should be supported in renegotiating the terms of their current private loans such to avoid redundancies, hiring freezes, or cuts to student services next academic year and beyond.

2. On student applications:

  1. In the short term, the Government and UUK proposed caps on student numbers are far too low. Student numbers are likely to fall significantly. Allowing for the projected number + 5% will still allow universities to “poach” students. Removing funding per student and restoring teaching grants will reduce competition.
  3. Universities need to be transparent about what they can actually offer. Students ought to know what they can expect on campus next year. If the need to compete for students for funding were removed, universities would be in a better position to be honest with students about what they can expect next year.      
  5. Representatives from UCU, student groups, and teaching unions should convene to reimagine the applications purpose from this year on beyond, including bringing the student applications portal, UCAS, into public ownership.

3. On funding:

  1. The current market model is not stable. This is a feature, not a bug - having a market in higher education means the possibility of a university failing becomes real. This model, which lets down students, workers, and the public at large, must be replaced by a higher education system funded primarily through progressive taxation. A fees-based model must be replaced by specific budgets for teaching and research.
  3. The kind of cross-subsidisation that the fees-based model created wherein huge fees for international students subsidised insufficient public funding, is not sustainable, as Covid-19 has painfully shown.

4. On bailout terms:

  1. Bailouts terms must be passed through the democratic structures of universities, not by senior management alone. Bailouts must result in more worker, student, and community representation rather than less.
  3. University resources must not be sold off to private companies, they must remain in public hands.
  5. Workers’ pay and conditions must be preserved in bailouts and mergers
  • Over the past two years, workers in higher education have taken part in the biggest strike in the sector’s history. We cannot simply return to the status quo ante virus. Voluntary action on casualisation is not enough: a condition of public funding must a crackdown on precarity.
  • Similarly, academic and non-academic staff must all be brought in house, and practices of outsourcing that are costly and result in miserable and hyper-exploitative working conditions must end.
  • The Covid-19 crisis cannot be a way of quickly ending the pensions dispute in the favour of employers
  1. Senior management pay has risen astronomically in the past decade: six universities in England paid their vice-chancellors £500,000 or more in salary, bonuses and benefits last year, while nearly half of all received more than £300,000.[35] The sector needs maximum salaries and pay ratios as a condition for bailouts.
  2. Mergers must be approached with caution. Many universities have particular missions and expertise – including for supporting particular groups of students – that would be lost in mergers. Per UCU’s demands, collaboration between universities to stabilise finances is preferable to outright mergers.

Higher education will be vital to the research, training, and retraining required to green and democratise our economy and society. This vital sector on which hundreds of thousands of jobs as well as the principles of shared, common knowledge must be protected. With bailouts must come terms that defend workers’ and students’ rights and extend democracy within university communities. Rather than allowing the stripping of public assets, we ought to act in line with Williams’ maxim that we must view education as something  precious, something “which we should have to produce a special argument to limit rather than a special argument to extend.”

See footnotes

[1] Ursula Kelly, Iain McNicoll and James White, “The Economic Impact of HigherEducation Institutions in England”, UniversitiesUK, 2014,

[2] Universities UK,“University Funding Explained”, 2016,

[3] Ursula Kelly, Iain McNicoll and James White, “The Economic Impact of HigherEducation Institutions in England”

[4]  University of Cambridge, “Reports and Financial Statements 2019”,; Nottingham Trent University, “Consolidated and University Financial Statements as at 31 July 2019”,

[5] University of Oxford “Financial Statements 2018/19”,

[6] Michael Rustin, “The neoliberal university and its alternatives”, Soundings, no. 63, 2016, pp. 147 -170, p. 150.

[7] Paul Bolton, “Higher education student numbers“ , House ofCommons Library, 13 Mar 2020,

[8] Andrew Jack, “Spiralling costs, high debt and Brexit: can UK universities survive?”, Financial Times, 5 Feb 2019,

[9] Andy Westwood, “Too few 18-year-olds? That's no reason to start shutting universities”, The Guardian, 20 Feb 2017.

[10] Richard Waite, “Has the university building gold rush run its course?”, 31 Jan2019.

[11] Gareth Gore, “UK universities turn to private market as debts rack up”, International Financing Review, 12 Oct 2018

[12] Richard Adams, “Spiralling rents consume increasing portion of student loans”, The Guardian, 11 Dec 2019

[13] Gareth Gore, “UK universities turn to private market as debts rack up”

[14] Office for Students, “Financial sustainability of higher education providers inEngland“,  4 April 2019,

[15] With some exceptions: The New College of the Humanities, AC Grayling’s privateLondon college, was acquired by Northeastern of the US. ManchesterMetropolitan’s Crewe campus is run by Apollo, an Indian healthcare company, see:

[16] Rajeev Syal and Rowena Mason, “JoJohnson to tell universities to stop 'no-platforming' speakers”, The Guardian, 26 Dec 2017,; Vic Parsons, “Education secretary GavinWilliamson says universities must ‘do more’ to protect free speech or ‘the government will’”, Pink News,7 Feb 2020; Sean Coughlan, “Free speech pledge for universities”, BBC, 3 May 2018,

[17] Nigel Morris, “Government to stop universities offering ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees”, Ipaper, 15 May 2016,


[19] A mere fortnight before Covid-19 engulfed the world as we know it, Policy Exchange published “Universities at the Crossroads”, claiming that universities needed to regain the trust of “their staff, their communities and the whole nation”, and that universities must be “willing to represent and not sneer at those who also, for example, justifiably feel pride in Britain’s history, culture and traditions.”  See:

[20] Richard Partington, “Education hit hardest as coronavirus batters UK economy”, The Guardian, 15 Apr 2020,

[21] Vikki Boliver, “Are there distinctive clusters of higher and lower status universities in the UK?”, Oxford Review of Education, 2015, vol. 41, No. 5, pp.608-627, p. 620.

[22] “Announcing our career-focused curriculum” University of Sunderland, 13 January 2020,

[23] Maike Halterbeck, Gavan Conlon, Rhys Williams, Joscelyn Miller, "Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on university finances Report for the University and College Union" London Economics, April 2020,

[24] David Batty, “Hundreds of university staff to be made redundant due to coronavirus”, The Guardian, 2 Apr 2020,

[25] Universities UK, “Achieving stability in the higher education sector following COVID-19”, Apr 2020,

[26] The Scottish Government gave a one off payment of £75 million to Universities for Covid-19 related financial issues. The Scottish Funding Council had previously found a black hole of £72 million due to Covid this year alone, with collective operating deficits of £384-£651 million for next academic year.

[27]  See Rustin, Soundings, “TheNeoliberal University and its Alternatives” for an attempt to balance all three defences from Raymond Williams’ schema, with a particular focus on the first defence of higher education. from the standpoint of democratic educators.

[28] Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution,Penguin, 1965,  p. 168.

[29] Ewan McGaughey, Principles of Enterprise Law (Cambridge University Press, 2021), ch 8.

[30] Rustin, Soundings, The Neoliberal University, p. 156.

[31] “Julie Connelly”, University of Sunderland,

[32] Andrew McGettigan, “Scoping report for union branches, University of Sussex”, UCU Sussex, 29 May 2020,

[33] Anthony Forster, "Message from the Vice Chancellor", University of Essex, 4 Apr 2020, Email correspondence.

[34] Michael Bailey and Des Freedman, “A New Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance in COVID times” Pluto Books,

[35] Richard Adams, “Vice-chancellors paid £500,000 or more at six universities in England”, The Guardian, 12 Feb 2019,

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