London’s universities are a key plank of post-pandemic recovery – a stable sector is a must

In my last blog, I gave a brief overview of the potential financial impact upon London’s universities and higher education (HE) colleges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. I also mentioned the London Higher impact and resources hub, this is a source of useful information for anyone with an interest in London’s HE.  We are using it to highlight a range of the brilliant activities London’s HE institutions (HEIs) are carrying out as part of the efforts to overcome the pandemic, and as they move to support students and staff as well as the community in London.  In this blog I would like to expand on all this a little further.

At the time of writing (4 May), the decision from national Government about a support package has just reached us.  It certainly doesn’t amount to a ‘bail out’ and I doubt it will add a lot of reassurance to some HEIs, if not a number.  The measures to reprofile some funding streams are helpful and to be welcomed.  Nevertheless, former Universities minister, Chris Skidmore has remarked on his twitter page ‘ advance loan for unis to immediately stabilise the HE sector is welcome, but ultimately does not account for potential huge loss of income due to reduction in international students. This black hole needs to be filled as this is creating the ripple effect across the sector.’

The fact is many of our universities could face damaging financial losses as a result of the pandemic. It is unclear whether the announced package announced changes this outlook markedly.  In London, as London Higher made clear in our Easter position paper, the situation could become especially acute. A principal reason being that international student recruitment is forecast to dip markedly – and about a third of all UK international students study in London.

Current universities minister, Michelle Donelan, has said the Department for Education (DfE) is working to show that Britain remains open for business, and also with the Home Office to expedite student visas.  She has also recognised that more assistance may be required by saying that this ‘ a fast-moving situation … should providers require further support, the government will continue to review their financial circumstances and assess the need for structured transformation and any attached conditions.”   There will also be new task forces looking at research sustainability, and at international student recruitment.  Hopefully all this might indicate that what has been announced on 4 May is a first phase of support.

All in all, whilst it is good to see that dialogue is open, I remain concerned that some may view this period as an opportunity to weed out so-called ‘weaker’ universities and ‘poor value’ courses.  Perceptions about whether an area (particularly around big urban conurbations, perhaps) is ‘over-provided for’ might also come into this, perhaps, as cards get played in the ‘levelling-up’ agenda.  Given the possible extent of acute financial difficulties this could prompt institutional closure.

As a reminder, in 2018/19 London’s universities and HE colleges together were generating £17bn in goods and services, including £2.9bn in export earnings.  They were supporting 172,000 jobs at all skills levels and directly employing c.93,000 staff.  Whilst being of course dedicated to excellence in research and teaching, they featured as major players in local regeneration – securing over £11m for projects – and in their communities. Right now, even the briefest of glances at the London Higher hub illustrates just how essential our world-class cluster of diverse HEIs are to London’s multi-dimensional ecosystem.  The examples we are posting (which we are adding to all the time) amply demonstrate that the contributions our institutions are making during this historic if dark time are both substantial and varied.

It cannot be overstated that the ripples, should London’s HEIs be diminished collectively or individually, would be large.  They would be felt by the national, as well as regional economy, in arts and culture, and of course by the people and businesses of London.   Anyone of the view that taking one or two institutions out for instance, or significantly diminishing what is an offer, would not have a marked negative effect should, please, think again. In most localities if absolutely nothing else an HEI is going to be one of the largest employers. To say nothing about being income generators, leaders of research, innovation and enterprise, and providing opportunities to study for people irrespective of their background and how advantaged or otherwise they might be.

That is not to say that the sector should not expect to make significant adaptations in response to the pandemic and its impact, or that the HE landscape should remain fixed the way it is now.  The former is already happening across the board.  But it is important to keep in mind that as well as playing a big part in the overcoming the current crisis, our HEIs will have a vital role in the recovery efforts at national, regional and local level.  This includes, as pointed out in the recent UUK/Million Plus paper, boosting our essential public services (there was some good news on the support for strengthening provision in this area in the 4 May announcement).  London’s universities and HE colleges are a fantastic asset serving London and the UK.  It would be in no-ones interests for any to face a cliff-edge scenario whether this autumn or sometime in 2021.