Calling for a ‘new deal for higher education’

Neve Gordon
Professor of international human rights and humanitarian law at Queen Mary University of London and a member of the BRISMES council

Nicola Pratt
Reader of the international politics of the middle east at the University of Warwick and vice president of BRISMES

In response to announced job cuts and other cost saving measures being taken by universities in light of the financial crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies organised a letter to relevant ministers in the UK and devolved governments calling ‘a new deal for higher education.’

When the coronavirus hit, 74 universities in the UK were in the midst of a 14-day strike whose goal was to protect our pensions, decrease our workload, push back against the casualisation of labour and demand an end to the gender and race pay gap. The scale of casualisation, which disproportionately affects women and black and ethnic minorities, and the threat it poses to working conditions in the sector became clear when we learned that some universities outsource teaching assistants to UniTemps and other agencies and that, therefore, they could not legally strike.

Since then, as each day passes, it becomes clearer that the response of most university managers to the financial crisis caused by Covid-19 is further entrenching the inequalities and precarity that provoked the waves of strikes over the past two years. Many universities have announced redundancies of permanent staff after laying off fixed-term and hourly-paid colleagues, a disproportionate number of whom are women and black and ethnic minorities. Some universities have announced cuts to the range of courses and subjects being offered. Simultaneously, some universities are paying an array of external consultants large sums to offer advice on pedagogical issues which staff have ample experience.

A whole generation of early career scholars, who constitute the future of academia, are now facing uncertainty as even hourly-paid teaching work dries up, let alone permanent jobs and post-doctoral fellowships. Meanwhile, lecturers are being told to prepare on-line and ‘blended’ learning experiences and there is little doubt in our mind that the universal transition to ‘synchronous and asynchronous’ teaching precipitated by corona will serve as an experiment that is likely to have a dramatic and devastating impact on higher education, particularly in light of the looming economic crisis.

The scale of the challenges that we face not only reveal the need to continue our struggles around workload, pay, casualisation, the gender and race pay gaps and pensions, but also the need to question the higher education funding model of student fees and marketisation that is driving the inequalities and precarity in our sector.

Taking these developments into account, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies sent a letter to relevant ministers in the UK and devolved governments calling for ‘a new deal for higher education.’

Signed by forty-eight professional associations representing diverse academic research fields, our letter points out that UK public spending on tertiary education is the lowest among OECD countries, and comprises less than half of the average spending among the OECD’s other 34 countries, making UK universities particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in income from student numbers. Even before the pandemic, nearly 25 percent of all UK universities were in deficit and this number will undoubtedly grow as universities are forced to borrow to offset the huge revenue losses caused by lockdown and decreasing numbers of students in the new academic year.

Responses to our letter from ministers in the devolved nations  all appear to acknowledge the importance of UK universities and the severity of the crisis facing them (see here).

Diane Dodds, minister for the economy in the Northern Ireland Assembly wrote that she had ‘taken steps to secure additional funding for the local sector to address the short-term pressures it currently faces’, and that she is ‘also working closely with Ministerial colleagues across the UK in securing a package of support for the UK higher education sector, and […] ensuring that the needs of the local institutions are protected in any measures being brought forward by the UK Government’.

Meanwhile, Richard Lochhead, minister for further education, higher education and science in Scotland, insisted that, ‘Education in Scotland remains one of the fundamental priorities of this government … Therefore, in direct response to the crisis, we are putting together a support package based on what we have responsibility for in Scotland including the one-off £75 million increase in capital funding already announced for Scotland’s universities to ensure they can protect their world-leading research programmes against the financial impact of Covid-19 … [and] continue to work with the UK Government […] to address the long term sustainability of our sector to ensure it plays a key role in Scotland’s economic and social recovery’.

Kirsty Williams, minister for education in Wales, recognised that ‘The scale of the financial challenge that universities are facing is significant’ and that they ‘welcome further discussions with HM Treasury about this to maintain the strength, stability and strategic direction of our sector as a whole’.

From the UK government, Amanda Solloway, minister for science, research and innovation, replied on behalf of Michelle Donelan, minister of state for universities, to inform us of a range of measures (which have all been previously announced), including government grants/low-interest loans, some additional support for research and bringing forward tuition fee payments. According to minister Solloway, ‘We recognise that there remains significant uncertainty around the extent of financial challenge providers will face and the full picture of this will not become clear until the autumn term. That is why we have announced today the establishment of the Higher Education Restructuring Regime to support, in the right circumstances, individual HE providers in England at risk of market exit as a result of Covid-19 and to intervene where there is a case to do so’.

Even though the Covid-19 pandemic has simultaneously highlighted the huge importance of university research to tackling the virus and its social and economic implications as well as the unsustainability of the current funding model for higher education, disappointingly none of the responses engaged with our call for a sustained increase in public funding for tertiary education in line with OECD averages. The current crisis represents an opportunity to establish a more sustainable future for the sector that protects jobs, working conditions and the continued diversity of courses and degree programmes. This requires not merely government loans or a one-time financial bailout but rather a rethink of how higher education is funded. It requires a new deal for higher education.

The authors write in their personal capacity.

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