by John Holmwood
16th May 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into crisis those higher education systems that have moved over the last decade from direct public funding to funding from student fees. These are primarily in the USA, England and Australia, but it also includes those systems that have sought additional income from the recruitment of overseas students bringing premium fees, for example, Scotland and Ireland.

However, as Jefferson Frank, Norman Gowar and Michael Naef set out in chapter seven of English Universities in Crisis (‘Adjusting to the Future’, now available to download free here), the system in England was already in crisis and in need of a serious overhaul.

With Jefferson Frank and Michael Naef as economists, and Norman Gowar a mathematician, they do not question the underlying principles of the reforms and the two aims of greater competition among institutions and increased student choice. Their criticism is that the way the market has been set up has led to serious distortions. This included the reinforcement of the cartel-like status of the Russell Group, allowing it to appropriate resources by selling education as a positional good to the wider detriment of students at less advantaged institutions and, indeed, from less advantaged backgrounds. Equally seriously, the reforms had created a polarisation of institutions and had threatened the futures of some that had provided good quality education to a diverse range of students.

In effect, not-for-profit universities have been transformed into revenue-maximising corporations, with increasingly centralised management systems and staffing structures that are skewed away from the core activities of teaching and research. This is also associated with rising staff-student ratios and the increased use of casual staff to teach the increased volume of students who are sought to provide the funding for other activities, including capital investment projects designed to look good at ‘open days’.

We are entering a major financial crisis for the sector and a wider economic crisis in which there will be multiple calls for government support. It is crucial that the response within higher education is directed toward the public interest and to young people leaving school for an uncertain future. In effect, the special interests of some universities has held the whole system to ransom.

Before the business model was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Frank and colleagues had set out a blueprint for future reforms. It is urgent that we use a ‘whole system’ approach such as theirs to understand how we should approach the crisis and what we should demand of government, our own university and ourselves.

John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham.

Download chapter seven from English Universities in Crisis – ‘Adjusting to the Future’ – free here.


English Universities in Crisis, by Jefferson Frank, Norman Gowar and Michael Naef is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £10.39.

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