We need an ambitious Queen's Speech to deliver the high-quality education students deserve
Tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech provides the government with an opportunity to set the agenda for the year ahead and make clear to the country what their key priorities will be.
Of course, 2022 has already been a big year for our sector. We finally received the government’s long-awaited proposals to the Augar review, and the Skills and Post-16 Education Act became law, bringing forward provisions for the potentially transformative Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE).
But now decision makers can use this Queen’s Speech to go further. I want to see government take the first steps to ensure the universities delivering the highly skilled workers our economy needs can operate on a more sustainable financial footing.
High-quality education doesn’t come cheap
Government has repeatedly said we need a fairer and more sustainable system for students, for universities and the taxpayer - I couldn’t agree more. But let’s remember that high-quality education doesn’t come cheap. Freezing tuition fees, coupled with rising costs and student demand, simply means the pressure on funding for teaching will grow.
Extra government investment of £750m over three years is welcome. Yet even with this additional funding, we estimate the average annual deficit per UK undergraduate is set to more than double to £4,000 by 2025, with deficits across all subjects. What does this mean in practice?
First, universities will increasingly face difficult choices over how to protect quality and choice for students. Second, class sizes will likely increase, while staff-student ratios will rise. Third, if intakes onto STEM courses with the largest deficits are restricted, it will have a knock-on impact on the graduate pipeline for the economy, hindering universities’ ability to drive forward the government’s levelling up agenda and support regional economic growth.
Protecting teaching quality, supporting student choice, and delivering high-quality outcomes will need a new funding formula that is fair for students and taxpayers – I want to work with government to develop one. A nod to this on Tuesday would be a major step towards a more sustainable future for higher education.
Last year saw ministers deliver record increases in funding to support R&D that will be key to future economic growth and tackling major global challenges. Now we have an opportunity to demonstrate the same ambition for students.
We know the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is returning and legislation is expected to help protect our national security from overseas threats. Universities, which collaborate globally, know they have an important role to play here and will continue to work closely with government to do so but we hope new legislation is proportional and complements the robust mechanisms in place to protect national security, freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Higher education and the innovative R&D that comes out of it is a major asset to the UK, adding billions to our economy and creating thousands of jobs. It is vital new legislation creates new protections rather than hampering Britain’s ability to compete internationally.
Parliament will of course continue to have its say on the UK’s relationship with the EU. Over the next 12 months, I want to see our full association to the Horizon Europe programme confirmed. Government wants it - the sector needs it - it’s a genuine win-win for all involved and the sooner it’s secured the better.
Yes, there are challenges in balancing the books and universities will always work to find efficiencies and look for new income streams. But this is a two-way street. Government has the opportunity this week to begin to develop new funding arrangements, to safeguard our links between international collaborators – both in Europe and beyond – and to ensure the quality of teaching and support for students continues.
Dr Tim Bradshaw is chief executive of the Russell Group.
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