Inside Story

Universities, a shared crisis, and two centre-right governments

Britain and Australia have reacted very differently to the pandemic’s impact on higher education

Glyn Davis 13 July 2020 1662 words

Diverging policies: prime minister Scott Morrison with his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, during the G7 summit in Biarritz last August. Neil Hall/PA via AP

We are deep enough into the pandemic to know the world won’t snap back. For months, academics have been pushing back their conference dates, hoping to convene when the virus passed. But that hope has faded.

Slowly but inevitably we have moved to the Zoom symposium. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, log on. Many participate enthusiastically, flooding the chat box with commentary on proceedings. Others half-listen amid email and social media. It is a new space for scholarly debate and discussion, yet to develop its own rituals and courtesies.

Among such conferences last week was the fifth Buckingham Festival of Higher Education, co-sponsored by the University of Buckingham, a rare private institution in Britain’s largely public system, and the Higher Education Policy Institute in Oxford.

The British know that policy ideas flow between our nations. Australia’s Higher Education Contribution Scheme, or HECS, became the basis of student funding in England, while Canberra imported the idea of research and teaching assessment reviews from Whitehall.

So it was an honour to be the Australian speaking in an opening session alongside the former Conservative minister for universities, science, research and innovation, Jo Johnson, and prominent policy adviser Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the 2019 Conservative election manifesto for Jo’s brother Boris.

To Australian ears, a British policy discussion about higher education is slightly surreal. Johnson, like his distinguished predecessor David Willetts, is extraordinarily knowledgeable about universities, alive to the nuances of policy choices, and committed to incentives rather than regulation to influence institutional behaviour.

As minister, Johnson stressed the importance of research in transforming the British economy, and brought together funding agencies in a single entity, UK Research and Innovation. Since retiring at the last election — he opposed Brexit — Johnson has accepted roles at Harvard and King’s College London alongside a return to journalism.

In his Buckingham presentation, Johnson reiterated two themes from his ministerial career: concern for teaching quality (he established the Office for Students) and a focus on innovation. Through research, he suggested, Britain can renew its industrial base.

This central role for universities was picked up by Rachel Wolf. She noted the decline of productivity across the Western world and argued that innovation driven by research and development is the most plausible way of creating new prosperity. Wolf referred to speeches over the past decade in which Boris Johnson suggested that strong university research underpins national prosperity — a view that is now a tenet of the Conservative Party.

Linking productivity to the good health of universities is not an argument often articulated by the Australian government, so it is worth reflecting on how tertiary policy in two similar systems has responded to the disruptions of Covid-19.

Buckingham vice-chancellor Sir Anthony Seldon opened the conference by describing the pandemic as “the biggest challenge to the university sector in history.” It is certainly confronting. The Black Death permanently closed five of Europe’s thirty universities. We might imagine destruction of similar proportions as this infection, and those that follow, cut their way through the sector.

As with the Black Death, major dislocation also encourages innovation. We are living the future already — the end of the familiar lecture, the arrival of virtual instruction, universities operating for months at a stretch with no one on campus. Covid-19 raises questions about expensive investment in infrastructure and invites students to put together a degree selecting courses from many different institutions.

It may also change how governments see universities. For if everyone can teach online, if courses look interchangeable, and if the nexus between teaching and research looks ever more tenuous, can we still assert that each university is unique, separate and necessarily autonomous?

Amid these challenges, the policy responses in Britain and Australia tell us something about contemporary party ideology.

Both countries are led by right-of-centre governments, each tested and returned in elections during 2019. Australians study at universities at a similar rate to their British counterparts, and both nations have benefited greatly from a flow of international students.

We might anticipate, therefore, similar responses to the crisis.

The enthusiasm for tertiary education evinced by Jo Johnson is not the only narrative around. On the contrary, both nations have heard sustained criticism of universities, some of it levelled by senior ministers — a chorus of complaints about arrogant universities resisting government priorities, valuing research over teaching, and failing to tackle community ambitions.

In Australia, politicians criticise universities for supporting their operations by recruiting students from China. In Britain, as John Morgan wrote in Times Higher Education, Conservatives trying to attract non-graduate voters “may find universities a tempting target for economic and cultural hits.”

There is ample evidence of voter resentment against the perceived privilege of university graduates. Antagonism is accentuated by the collapse of familiar vocational careers, the eclipse of apprenticeships, and the destruction of certainties about hard work, fairness and opportunity. The world no longer seems predictable or navigable. People hoping for careers in stable organisations find their moorings kicked away.

So, if a government wanted to act against universities, the Covid-19 crisis provides the ideal moment. It could be used to crystallise the public critique built over recent years and justify major policy changes.

How then to read the signals?

In Britain they seem decidedly mixed. In May, Boris Johnson’s government turned down requests to bail out institutions facing huge losses from falling international enrolments. More recently, universities minister Michelle Donelan criticised English universities for offering dumbed-down courses to keep up student numbers.

It seems Covid-19 will coincide with the end of a long period of growth in higher education in Britain. Universities are to be held to their current student enrolment, with caps on further domestic expansion. Yet the government has also worked to reopen access for foreign students and promoted Britain as the preferred destination when international education resumes.

But the most significant British response reflects the policy priority articulated by Jo Johnson and Rachel Wolf. Whitehall has announced two packages to support research by universities and institutes, which will see the government covering up to 80 per cent of lost income from international students, with a further £280 million to support key research projects, particularly responses to the pandemic.

The two packages acknowledge a truth in both nations: income from international education is essential to underwrite research, supplementing funding from governments and philanthropy. Without global education, British universities face a projected shortfall of at least £2.5 billion in the year ahead.

This response recognises the centrality of higher education to Britain’s research effort. As Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, told Nature in June, “If a vaccine were to emerge from the United Kingdom, it would emerge from a UK university.”

To an outsider, two logics seem at work in Britain — a scepticism about the value of universities among education authorities and a contrasting view among economic agencies that universities are vital to recovery.

To the detriment of universities, there is less ambiguity in Australia. The federal government has not offered to compensate the sector for the loss of international students, who until recently contributed Australia’s fourth-largest export earnings. Canberra did guarantee current domestic student numbers, though these enrolments were not under threat. On four separate occasions the federal government changed regulations to exclude public universities from support offered to other employers.

As one government senator enthusiastically posted on social media, there is “no need to bail out bloated universities” — they should feel the pain of relying on Chinese students to pay the bills. The senator didn’t criticise the similar dependence of other sectors — notably agriculture and tourism — on exports to China. Unlike universities, they were provided with access to JobKeeper subsidies.

In late June, federal education minister Dan Tehan announced funding changes allied to new regulations. The government will reduce funding per domestic student by an overall 15 per cent. This includes a dramatic reduction in public funding for the study of humanities, law, economics, business and social sciences.

The minister also used the opportunity to cut any tie between research and teaching; in future, university funding is solely for student learning. A new translation fund, financed by cuts to teaching, will encourage “linkage” with industry, but early estimates suggest 7000 university research staff will lose their jobs as a result of the minister’s package and lost international income.

The minister subsequently announced a panel to consider research policy, but has so far given no commitment to countering universities’ revenue shortfall, estimated at between $3 billion and $5 billion annually.

In other words, like-minded governments can reach different conclusions about the future of higher education. They can seek to rebuild the sector as a national resource quickly, as in Britain, or they can use the opportunity to constrain public expenditure and reduce the span and reach of higher education, as in Australia.

The differences may reflect the personal view of leaders, but they can also be structural. Britain has many manufacturing and service industries that draw on university research, and a strong scientific tradition. The House of Lords includes former senior scholars, and links between key industrial, cultural, political and academic worlds may be stronger.

While governments diverge, the response of British and Australian universities to the pandemic has been consistent and impressive. Necessity favours invention, and changes that might otherwise take years were achieved in weeks. Entire courses were transferred online, and technology was deployed to handle student administration, exams, course guidance and counselling, and even graduation ceremonies.

International research collaboration has accelerated as public health authorities turn to universities for expert advice and vaccine development. The medical workforce has been bolstered by students volunteering in hospitals and mobile clinics. The sector demonstrated its public spirit and a determination to contribute amid adversity.

At a difficult moment we should take pride that academics, administrators and institutional leaders have demonstrated impressive ability to adapt and change. Though some perished, most universities survived the Black Death, and went on to shape much of the world we now inhabit.

We can do so again. •