Coronavirus could see universities go bust without being handed help

Linda J. Dodson

International students are a major source of income, without them educational institutions will go under

Our university system was fully privatised only a few years ago. It happened in several steps as the Government withdrew the base funding that most of the population thinks it still has.

People noticed the marketisation, of course – the introduction of tuition fees, the student loans company and a newly competitive “market” for students from home and abroad. Inevitably, this “market” then needed a regulator. Value for money was to be decided by excellence frameworks ranked gold, silver and (fearfully) bronze. Marketing budgets soared.

However, many people failed to notice what had really happened. Our universities had become providers of education and research with the equivalent of zero hours contracts.

You would be forgiven for not noticing because on the surface, other than the fees, things might have looked the same. Universities remained symbols of stability in towns and cities across the land. Their historic buildings were surrounded by an ever-growing supply of purpose-built student residences.

The student pound supported retail and leisure, and champagne corks popped at graduations.

Only beneath the surface, everything had changed. I’ve seen the books of universities and I’m under no illusions. There is a modest amount of base funding for the elite universities, which covers part of research costs.

But overall, universities only get paid according to the numbers of students they have and the amount of peer-reviewed papers they publish. If the students aren’t there, the money stops. Then, as would be true of every other private business or charity, without intervention the universities would simply have to close.

Surely, you think, that can’t happen. Even now, when household names risk going to the wall due to Covid-19. Don’t universities have a guaranteed intake of eager customers, students themselves, you might ask?

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