Over the course of the last many months of WordPress blog entries, I’ve noted on more than one occasion how pleased I am not still to be part of a senior team trying to manage a university during a global pandemic. The arrival of a pandemic like Covid-19 might have been manageable for universities in the idealistic decades of their post-war expansion, when Higher Education was seen as a largely unquestioned social good and its roles both as a ‘critic and conscience’ in an increasingly secularized society, and as the provider of much of the intellectual leadership behind commercially beneficial research were recognized. Before the days of the 1985 Jarratt Report’s study of efficiencies in Higher Education and the Boston Consulting Group’s ‘Cash Cows’ and ‘Dogs’, before the growth of populist anti-intellectualism, and long before Michael Gove told us we were ‘tired of experts’, many governments around the world recognized the intellectual, social and commercial value of university education and were prepared to pay for it via student grants and university subsidies.
The very rapid expansion of Higher Education obviously posed challenges for a model based on an enthusiastic recognition by government of the extent of the benefits universities and their graduates bring to society. From the 1980s onwards, with the Jarratt Report being a key moment, the weighting of the perceived benefits changed and the emphasis shifted to the benefits of Higher Education to the individual, rather than to society as a whole. This has resulted in a steady decline in government subsidy to universities and grants to students; a rapid commodification of education; a reification of students as ‘products’; and an instrumentalist fetishisation of ‘impact’ as the measurable benefit of research. The withdrawal of public funding for all but the most resource-intensive science-based subjects resulted in what amounted for many universities to privatization by stealth, which means that many now have to rely almost entirely on student fees to cover their costs. Given that there is a ceiling to the fees universities are allowed to charge ‘home’ students, the mass recruitment of international students was an obvious recourse and, in a competitive market economy, many universities have been charging as much for their courses as the market will bear. There may well be some additional cost to teaching international students who are often not English first- language speakers and often come to the UK with very different learning styles from ‘home’ students, but that additional cost is pretty marginal, and the ethics of charging international students significantly higher fees for exactly the same courses as are offered to ‘home’ students are highly questionable.
Our universities seem to me now to be finding themselves in an impossible position in times of Covid-19 crisis, and are coming in for increasingly virulent criticism from students, parents, the media and the wider public. In this context it seemed important to explore very briefly how the universities reached this point – oversimplified and crude as the account I have given is – if only because it throws some light on the Pontius Pilate-like extent to which, regardless of universities’ major contribution to society, government now washes its hands of its responsibility for our universities and, through them, their students. That responsibility would have been painfully obvious to everybody in the 1960s and 1970s. The very poor university experience being offered to ‘home’ students has been the subject of quite extensive media coverage over the past year; the plight of international students has received much less coverage here, although one suspects that it has featured prominently enough in the media in the students’ home countries to act as a significant deterrent to future international recruitment.
The photograph above, published three days ago, is of an amorphous queue of destitute international students, many of them postgraduate students from India, waiting in line for handouts of food parcels from a food-bank. The accompanying Channel 4 news report revealed that the food-bank in question, whose location remained discreetly undisclosed, now caters solely for students and succeeds in providing food for 1,700 of them every week. As someone who spent his working life in universities I found the photograph and accompanying report deeply disturbing. The students cannot afford to buy food, partly because the pandemic has resulted in the disappearance of the 20 hours per week part-times jobs many would have relied on. The ones who were interviewed said that they didn’t want to let parents, who had in most cases made enormous sacrifices to enable them to come to the UK, know that they were struggling. They were also very reluctant to make approaches to their university as they were worried, in the context of the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’, that that could lead to their visas being withdrawn. It is obviously common knowledge that the Home Office will have done its best to find reasons stop them coming to UK in the first place, and it is not an unreasonable assumption that it will be looking for reasons to deport them. In the meantime, it was clear that the universities had proved themselves incapable of communicating with the students who were being interviewed to let them know what student welfare provisions, however limited, were available to them.
The universities remain reliant on student fees. Their overheads will remain largely the same. There will not be many opportunities to furlough staff, as academic staff are having to come to terms with remote teaching, and marking loads will stay the same, while most support staff in roles that haven’t been outsourced will still be needed. Some universities will have significant reserves to draw on, but many don’t. As I have said, I do not envy university managers their role in current circumstances. But they should, at least, be able to communicate with their students a great deal better than some of them appear to be doing, and they need to find some way of helping the very many international students who find themselves having to queue at the food-banks if they want to have something to eat. It isn’t as if this situation is new. The BBC was already reporting on 29th July last year that up to 600 international students a week were queuing round the block on Tuesdays and Saturdays at the Newham Community Projects base in East Ham to receive food from volunteers. Charging international students very high fees for the privilege of registering, and then leaving them to be fed by food-banks is not a good look for our universities.