Skip to main content

Universities: Financial Sustainability

Volume 654: debated on Monday 11 February 2019

To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on the financial sustainability of universities in England.

I thank the hon. Lady for the opportunity to discuss the higher education sector today in what is my first urgent question.

This Government recognise the importance of the higher education sector and the massive contribution that it makes to this country. We recognise the multiple challenges that the sector is facing and that these will require institutions to adapt to a more competitive and uncertain environment. It is true that the current context presents significant challenges to institutional management, efficiency and financial planning in the HE sector, but it is wrong to characterise the HE provider sector as teetering on the brink of financial collapse. In its final annual report on the financial health of the sector published in March last year, the Higher Education Funding Council for England—the Office for Students’ predecessor—concluded that the HE sector continues to be in a sound position financially.

The new regulatory framework under the Office for Students brings a risk-based approach to monitoring financial viability and sustainability in order to protect students’ interests. Financial sustainability is a condition of registration. This means that the OfS, as regulator, will pay greater attention—and, importantly, require more specific action—where there is greater institutional vulnerability. Where the OfS identifies particular risks to a provider’s financial sustainability, it will indeed take action. This may include enhancing its monitoring or imposing a specific condition of registration on a provider to improve its financial performance. It may also require a provider to strengthen its student protection plan. This will enable action to be taken before a provider faces major financial difficulties.

The Department for Education is also working closely with the OfS to understand the sector’s wider financial risk in worst-case scenarios. We are working with the OfS, other Departments and other relevant national partners to develop full contingency plans to deal with unforeseen and/or major HE provider failure. This will set out roles, responsibilities, triggers and actions to be associated with instances where HE provider market exit falls outside the normal business-as-usual approach of the OfS in implementing its regulatory framework and requires Government action. But ultimately, as autonomous bodies, the financial viability of universities is a matter for the leadership of the HE providers themselves.

The terms of reference of the post-18 review that has been led by Sir Philip Augar include a focus on ensuring choice and competition across a joined-up post-18 education and training sector. The review will look at how it can support a more dynamic market in provision while maintaining the financial sustainability of a world-class higher education and research sector. We have been clear that the review recognises the need to preserve and protect the existing strengths in the system, and the stability of providers is key to a strong system.

The HE sector does face challenges, but we are confident that universities will rise to these challenges and continue to be providers of world-class higher education.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I want to take this opportunity to wish my comrade, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), a happy birthday.

Serious concerns were revealed this weekend about the financial situation of Reading University and there are reports of at least three more universities facing a significant risk of insolvency. I hope that the Minister will tell us in a little more detail what steps he is taking to address the situation at Reading, as well as across the sector, because the consequences of such a failure would be disastrous for students, staff and entire local communities and economies. Can the Minister reassure us that it is the Government’s policy to prevent such a disaster? I do not feel reassured from his response that he has a grip of this.

The Minister said that he is working with the Office for Students towards establishing student protection plans. Can he clarify how many universities do not have plans in place? When will he ensure that they all do? What will it mean in practice? Will students be left with a refund but no qualification after years of study? HEFCE had a list of universities of financial concern. Can the Minister tell us whether the new regulator has such a list and how many providers are currently of concern? Last year, it granted at least one £1 million emergency loan. Can he tell the House how many others have been issued? The new regulator has now said:

“The OfS will not bail out providers in financial difficulty.”

Is that Government policy and from when does it apply?

Can the Minister confirm that his Government have also handed universities a £200 million pensions bill but no new funding to meet those costs? Is he lobbying the Treasury to change that? The Office for National Statistics has demanded that the Government end the “fiscal illusion” of pretending that all loans for fees are repaid. When will the Government follow that ruling? Given the uncertainty that universities now face, can he tell the House whether the Augar review will be published this year? Will he guarantee that any proposals on tuition fees will not lead to cutting universities’ funding?

This crisis is a direct result of the Government’s failing free market experiment. Is it not time they faced the fundamental fact that education is best provided as a public service for the public good? If this Government will not change, it is time for a new Government.

I will respond to several of those points, but I do not think it is appropriate for the Government or the OfS to comment on the position of individual providers.

In terms of the role of the Office for Students in HE financial sustainability, as I have stated, the new regulatory framework that has been created brings a risk-based approach to monitoring financial viability and sustainability, in order above all to protect student interests. The reforms have provided for that framework, and it means that the OfS, as regulator, can pay greater attention and require more specific action if there is institutional vulnerability.

Ultimately, these are autonomous bodies and leaders of HE providers are responsible for ensuring their institutions’ financial viability. They are not part of the public sector; they are autonomous institutions. During the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, a key point voted on by Labour Members was that universities would remain independent and autonomous. The OfS will therefore work closely with providers in financial difficulty, but neither the OfS nor the Department for Education will prop up failing providers. The OfS may enhance its monitoring or impose a specific condition of registration, requiring a provider to improve its financial performance, but we need providers at risk of any financial difficulties to come forward, so that we and the OfS can work with them on improving those registration conditions, which may require a provider to strengthen its student protection plan.

I turn to the issue of HE provider failure. The aim of the new HE regulatory approach is that the Office for Students will be able to act in anticipation of developments such as course closure or market exit, rather than in reaction to them. As I have said, under the new regulatory framework, providers must meet a set of registration conditions aimed at ensuring that they are financially viable, sustainable and well-managed organisations. The new HE regulatory framework has been designed to promote diversity, innovation and choice in HE, in the interests of students, and achieving that does not equate to propping up any particular failing HE provider.

In a competitive market, providers that fail to meet quality standards for students’ expectations may see their financial position come under even greater pressure. There is an expectation that providers may, in a small number of cases, exit the market altogether as a result of strong competition. However, the OfS’s primary interest is ensuring that any such closures do not adversely affect students and their ability to conclude their studies and obtain a degree. Students are making a considerable investment when they commit to a programme of study—investing their time, energy and money—and it is important that they should be able to complete those studies.

On protecting students and student protection plans, the OfS has the powers to ensure that all registered HE providers have these plans in place to safeguard students’ interests against the risk of financial failure. It is a registration condition that they have such a student protection plan in place. Student protection plans will set out what students can expect to happen in the event of a course, campus or department closure or if an institution exits the market. The plans must address the specific risks faced by the provider, and may include measures such as the transfer of students to another provider or financial compensation. In addition, the new regulatory framework sets out that all providers must have a refund policy.

On the pensions issue that the hon. Lady mentioned, the Government’s consultation on the teachers’ pension scheme changes closes this Wednesday—13 February. I encourage all providers to participate in that consultation, which is an important one. It is right that this live consultation should seek views on the impact of the proposal on higher education institutions, and we will finalise funding decisions once the consultation has concluded.

The hon. Lady mentioned the post-18 review being led by Philip Augar, which is still ongoing. More information on the review will be available in due course, and it will be published in due course. I will not speculate on what recommendations the independent panel will make on HE tuition fees, or on what the final conclusions will be. However, the post-18 review terms of reference include a focus on ensuring choice and competition across the joined-up post-18 education and training sector. The review will look at how to support a more dynamic market in provision while maintaining the financial sustainability of a world-class higher education and research sector. I look forward to the review being published in due course.

When it comes to the hon. Lady’s own position on the financial sustainability of the HE sector, I have to say that of all the universities I have visited and all the vice-chancellors I have spoken to, not one supports Labour’s position of removing tuition fees and completely crippling the HE sector’s financial position. The removal of fees completely would ensure that instability returned and student number caps returned. When it comes to access and participation plans, the money spent on them has risen from £430 million to £860 million in recent years, and that money would end up being capped. Labour does not have any answer on what it would do to ensure that the finance of our universities is protected for the longer term.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent start he is making on what is the best job in government? Universities’ financial sustainability and our soft power as a country depend on our ability to compete successfully for international students around the world. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that we should put in place a competitive offer for international students by restoring the two-year post-study work visa that we mistakenly abolished in 2012?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work he put in as one of my predecessors as Universities Minister. The establishment of the Office for Students was very much down to his hard work. I remember the Higher Education and Research Act as the most amended piece of legislation in the history of this place, and he did a sterling job in making sure that we have the regulatory framework in place to ensure that we protect against financial failure in the market.

When it comes to international students, the Government are absolutely determined to press forward and look internationally at what we can do. Our universities are world-class and world-leading organisations. We have had roughly 460,000 applications from the EU and internationally this year—the highest level of applications ever seen. We will be publishing an international education strategy in the spring. We are clear that we have removed the cap on international student numbers, and we want to do more to ensure that we can increase our ability to compete not just nationally but internationally with other countries that also recognise the value of higher education at the international level.

The University of Reading is an example of the recent trend of universities running into financial difficulties. It has got a short-term loan, but it is very unclear what this Government intend to do, as the Office for Students said last year that it would not bail out universities any more. Is it or is it not the Government’s position to offer financial aid to universities with cash-flow issues?

Universities UK is extremely concerned about all the issues that universities are facing, such as pensions and the Brexit strategy being pursued by the present Government. Will the UK Government look at universities—the place they hold in society across the UK and the amount of cash they generate for the UK economy—and help them to get through this real and immediate crisis?

I made it clear in my opening remarks that the Government do not intend to bail out any independent, autonomous institutions, which is what HE providers are. What we have done is provide the regulatory framework by which the OfS can step in to help universities by signposting and working with them in advance to ensure that market failure does not occur. I have to say that our ability to provide record levels of investment in universities has been the result of increased tuition fees, which we have not seen in Scotland. As a result, some of the poorest students are able to access universities in a way that does not happen north of the border.

Just before I ask my question, will the Minister join me in congratulating Trinity College, Cambridge on appointing its first ever woman master, Dame Sally Davies?

Students are right now thinking about which courses to accept for next year and what university to go to. Can the Minister confirm that the regulator, the Office for Students, has given all registered institutions the bill of health that means they are financially secure for at least the next three years?

The Office for Students is currently undergoing a registration process for all HE institutions, including FE providers. I understand that around 250 institutions have now been registered and, having spoken to the OfS, I am confident that it will finish the process over the course of this year. I of course congratulate Dame Sally Davies on her appointment. We need more women in leadership positions in higher education—the more, the merrier—so I offer many congratulations.

Reading University is an outstanding, research-intensive university with high-quality teaching, as I am sure the Minister is aware, as it scores excellent marks in the Government’s own teaching excellence framework. It also provides thousands of high-quality jobs in Reading and the wider Thames valley region. Will he reassure students, the university and the many local people who rely on it that he is willing to help, and will he meet me and the university’s vice chancellor to discuss the issues involved?

I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, as a constituency Member of Parliament, at his request. However, the Government’s position is not to comment on the financial sustainability of individual institutions. I will arrange the meeting, but I urge him and Reading University to contact the OfS to begin discussions on any concerns they might have. The OfS is there to provide early signposting and pick up on issues, rather than to react to late decisions or financial circumstances.

The Minister will have seen the growth in the universities sector over the past few years, particularly as the student caps have been removed, and he will be aware that Torbay hopes at some point to have an institution of university status. Will he reassure me that we will not return to the era of caps, which would make that impossible?

I entirely agree. I am proud to be a member of the Government who reduced the student number cap between 2012 and 2015, and eventually abolished it in 2016, allowing a record number of students to access higher education. We know that, going into the 2020s, we will need a knowledge-based economy, so it is right that we allow more people the opportunity to succeed in their ambition to achieve a degree. Abolishing student finance by looking at fee levels would simply give away a fee freeze to the children of millionaires while capping the number of students who could attend university.

The Minister has said that the Government will not bail out universities in financial difficulties, yet virtually his first act as Universities Minister was to take through Parliament a 20% increase in tuition fees, albeit just for accelerated degrees at this stage. Can he reassure the House that he has no plans to allow other degrees to see a 20% hike in tuition fees as a result of the financial problems currently facing universities?

I welcome the measures we are putting in place to increase course innovation and flexibility within the HE sector. I passionately believe that that is the future and where we need to go. People may need to train and retrain across the course of their lives, so we will need course provision that allows people to access the HE market at every stage of their lives, right the way through their 20s and 30s. Two-year degrees are not a silver bullet—in fact, they were put forward in a Labour party amendment to the Higher Education and Research Act—but we have tried to ensure that they open up the market and we have encouraged more HE providers to take up two-year degrees. At the moment, they have been capped by the financial ability or the lack of financial ability to do so. Ultimately, it is £22,000 for a degree as opposed to £27,000. It is not necessarily an increase in fees; it provides people with an opportunity to study at a time of their choosing.

What would make universities less financially sustainable than making them entirely dependent on Government finance, particularly if it is a Labour Government?

Absolutely. If we began to return to a stage where universities are financed entirely by taxation it would not only put an increased burden of £12 billion on the taxpayer—an increase of about 2p to 3p on income tax rates—but mean that HE would have to compete with Government funding priorities on the NHS and welfare. Ultimately, we would return to student number caps and the situation we see in publicly funded universities in other countries where people struggle to find seats in lecture theatres. It is right that we have a sustainable financial system that protects students’ futures.

The Government still put billions of pounds into the higher education sector through research grants. If the Minister is not going to bail out institutions that are struggling financially, will he indicate to the House what action he is taking to safeguard the taxpayer pound being spent by institutions on research?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman on the value of research and development in the HE sector. The Government are committed to spending 2.4% of GDP on R&D. Some university grants relate to Horizon 2020 and the Government have made an underwrite guarantee extension to protect all currently allocated grants. We want to work with the sector to look at how we can increase money for R&D. The return on investment is fantastic. In the space sector, for every pound spent on R&D £10 is returned, so I could not agree more that we do need to do more as a Government. We have not done more in the past to bring ourselves up to the OECD average. Universities will be at the front and centre of that.

Does the Minister recall that in 2010 the system we inherited for funding higher education was completely unsustainable? Does he agree that that was demonstrated by the fact that it was the previous Labour Government who commissioned the Browne review?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our inheritance from the previous Government meant that we had a cap on student numbers, low numbers of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university, and low numbers of women entering science and mathematics degrees. All those trends have been reversed by investing in access and participation plans, investment to ensure that universities can expand geographically and—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) is chuntering from a sedentary position. [Interruption.] I do apologise. The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) is chuntering from a sedentary position. I say again that turning back the clock to taxpayer-funded degrees would simply be a fee cut for the children of millionaires and I simply do not agree with that.

The Minister will know that, whatever HEFCE said a year ago about the financial stability of the sector, a perfect storm is gathering with the potential drop in EU student numbers, EU research income and the Augar review. Does he agree that one way of mitigating the risks would be to take advantage of available sources of income? Does he accept that it would be a positive thing for him to embrace the recommendation of the all-party group on international students for an ambitious target for international student recruitment?

I recently had a meeting with the Higher Education Commission, led by an all-party group in Parliament. I was keen to receive that report, and as I said, our international education strategy will be published in the spring. I look forward to that and to receiving all views while we consider what our policy proposals will be.

At a time when Her Majesty’s Opposition are expressing concern about the stability and viability of university finances, does the Minister share my outrage at the sky-high salaries and rocketing salary increases of some of these vice-chancellors and other senior university officials, which are far beyond anything that they are worth and are particularly insensitive to students, who always have to manage on a tight budget?

Universities receive significant amounts of public funding, so it is right that their senior staff pay arrangements both command public confidence and deliver value for money both to students and taxpayers. We want to see senior staff pay in universities that is fair and justifiable, and the process for setting pay must be transparent. We have asked the OfS to pay close attention to the elements of the regulatory framework that will deliver value for money, as well as conditions of registration relating to senior staff pay, which will improve transparency in this area. I note that tomorrow, the OfS is publishing the first of its new annual reports on provider senior staff pay.

I have two universities in my constituency. Looking back—given some of the remarks that have been made by Government Members—I can remember that when the Major Government were in trouble, the proportion of students was only about 20%. Under a Labour Government, it was 47%, so we always find that under a Tory Government, universities have problems. However, my more serious question of the Minister is this: has he looked at the impact that Brexit will have on the number of students and exchanges, and the skills that are required from abroad to help research and development?

It is important to say, going back historically, that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the 1992 era. I was 11 at the time, and we need to move forward to the 21st century and have a unity of purpose that means we should ultimately want to do what is in the best interests of students. We should celebrate the fact that the a record level of students are now going to university—around 39%—but we also have to make sure that we get post-18 education right, so that we do not allow students to drop out if that course is not appropriate for them. I am delighted that the Minister with responsibility for further education—the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) —is sitting here today. We work closely together to make sure that we have a unified position that will benefit all students. When it comes to Brexit and the issue of student numbers, recent figures show that the number of EU students applying to universities has not fallen. It has risen—figures were published last week—and I welcome the fact that we need to highlight the opportunities that will be available in our world-leading universities.

Does the Minister agree that Labour’s policy to scrap tuition fees, even for the wealthiest people in our society, would put the whole sector in mortal peril and risk tens of thousands of students not being able to go to university at all?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What I have seen, going around to universities, is institutions that have been able to develop scholarship opportunities and help some of the poorest students in society to access higher education in a way that they would only have dreamed of a decade ago, at the same time as investing in capital, buildings, research and making sure, above all, that they improve the student experience by ensuring that the buildings, facilities and accommodation are really top-quality. The investment that has gone in, as a direct result of making sure that we have the finance and capital available for universities, has been spent well by them, in contrast to returning to a dark-ages position of our simply having no ability for students to pay fees. This would mean that we would return to the bad old days of student-number caps.

I was delighted to hear that the number of EU students has gone up, but one has to wonder whether it would have gone up even more had they had clarity about fees earlier. I used to help to run university admissions when I was a teacher. I can tell the Minister that the conversations we were having were in the year before the year of final exams, and July is too late. When are we going to get the clarity needed for the 2020 intake?

We have set out clearly in the Government guarantee, when it comes to EU students studying at UK institutions, that we want to put financial provision in place for those students up to 2020. There is obviously a separate issue, which I am working on, about exchanges when it comes to the Erasmus scheme. Ultimately, I say to Members that a lot of the exchanges that take place and a lot of the ability to create educational partnerships rely on a deal with the European Union. The Prime Minister’s deal set out clearly the opportunity to protect those education partnerships. If anyone has any concerns about making sure that those can continue, I urge them to vote for the deal.

Staff at the universities in Leeds talk to me constantly about the twin threats they face: first, financial sustainability; and secondly, Brexit, including the issues of Erasmus, Horizon 2020 and the £30,000 threshold the Government want to apply to EU migrants. What assessment has the Minister made of universities’ ability to recruit and retain staff?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This is not just about the financial numbers; it is about ensuring we have the human capital and that we are a welcoming place for higher education leaders and academics to come and continue their research. On the immigration White Paper, there is a consultation period, so we are consulting on the £30,000 cap, and I am keen to ensure that all HE institutions can feed into that consultation, both through the Home Office and by writing to me. I have also commissioned the Government Office for Science to model the potential impact on the scientific and research communities. So I am attuned to his concerns. We need to ensure that in leaving the EU we do not leave behind our European partnerships in academia, but we must also reach out much more widely and adopt a more international outlook.