Convention for HE Statement, A New Future for HE

This is an edited version of a statement developed, discussed and agreed at a 200-strong online meeting of academic staff and supporters of Higher Education on Saturday 23 May 2020. You can add your support to this statement below.

No return to ‘Business as Usual’:
Time for a New Future for Higher Education

1. The Crisis in Higher Education

Covid-19 has brought universities to the brink of collapse. An estimated 30-60,000 jobs are at risk, and many universities are confronting bankruptcy. The Government’s fee/loan market reforms of Higher Education were originally justified as a way to provide a sustainable future for HE and facilitate student choice. Instead, they have created a financial bubble, the over-expansion of some institutions while others shrank, and debt-fuelled building projects leveraged on ever-growing home and overseas student numbers.

2. The Public Value of Higher Education

The expected economic depression in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis will disproportionately affect young people, and those in the poorest areas of the UK. We need a strong, sustainable HE system if the UK is to recover. Universities are uniquely equipped to enable the development of new knowledge and skills, and thus a social and economic renewal.

The ideology of the tuition fee market has prioritised the private benefit of Higher Education over the public good. But universities do not merely train students for the workplace: they are the centres of research and scholarship essential to the understanding of society and its ills; they develop our culture; and they facilitate much-needed public debate.

  • Support for universities must be based on a model of public funding, in conjunction with planned support for a reinvigorated Further Education sector.

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Letter to Ministers from Professional Associations – BRISMES et al

Secretary of State for Education
The RT Hon Gavin Williamson CBE

Minister of State for Universities
Michelle Donelan

Minister for Education in Wales,
Kirsty Williams MS

Minister for Higher Education and Science in Scotland,
Richard Lochhead MSP

Minister for the Department of Education of Northern Ireland,
Peter Weir MLA

Minister for Science, Research and Innovation,
Amanda Solloway MP

17 June 2020

Dear Ministers,

We are writing to you as officers of 48 professional associations representing diverse research fields to express our profound concern about the future of higher education in the UK. COVID-19 has simultaneously highlighted the huge importance of university research to tackling the virus and its social and economic implications as well as the unsustainability of the current funding model for tertiary education.

Higher education makes a fundamentally significant contribution to society. It expands our knowledge and understanding of the world through an array of research discoveries, improves the life chances of individuals by enhancing social mobility and opportunities, advances the economy by carrying out innovative research, and provides each new generation with cultural knowledge as well as cutting edge skills and expertise. Yet, currently, UK public spending on tertiary education amounts to only a quarter of university budgets, which is not only the lowest among OECD countries, but comprises considerably less than half of the average spending among the OECD’s other 34 countries. It is therefore not surprising that nearly 25 percent of all UK universities were in deficit even before the pandemic and that now, due to a dramatic drop in projected income, almost all higher education institutions in the country will face huge obstacles to carry out their mission and remain internationally competitive without government support.

A vibrant and robust higher education system is absolutely vital for the UK’s future. We believe that the current government funding model for higher education is inadequate for this task and we therefore call upon you to use the current crisis as an opportunity to create a new deal for higher education. Rather than providing a one-time bailout, it is paramount that the UK and devolved governments substantially increases public spending on tertiary education in line with the OECD average in order to ensure that our tertiary institutions remain at the forefront of global research, education and innovation.

Yours sincerely,

African Studies Association of the United Kingdom — Professor Ambreena Manji
Architectural Humanities Research Association — Professor Jonathan Hale
Arts and Humanities Alliance — Professor Susan Bruce
Association for Art History — Professor Frances Fowle
Association for German Studies — Professor Margaret Littler
Association for Welsh Writing in English — Professors Kirsti Bohata and Matthew Jarvis
Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, UK and Ireland — Dr John Miller
Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland — Professor Claire Taylor
Association of Programmes in Translation and Interpreting Studies — Dr JC Penet and Dr Olga Castro
Association for Publishing Education — Professor Claire Squires
Association of University Professors and Heads of French — Professor Marion Schmid
British Association for American Studies — Dr Cara Rodway
British Association for Cognitive Neuroscience — Professor Jamie Ward
British Association for Slavonic & East European Studies — Dr Matthias Neumann
British Association for South Asian Studies — Professor Patricia Jeffery
British Association for Study of Religions — Professor Bettina Schmidt
British Association for Victorian Studies — Professor Dinah Birch CBE
British Association of Academic Phoneticians — Professor Jane Stuart-Smith
British Association of Critical Legal Scholars — Professor Adam Gearey
British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies — Dr James Leggott
British Comparative Literature Association — Professor Susan Bassnett
British International Studies Association — Professor Mark Webber
British Philosophical Association — Professor Fiona Macpherson, FRSE, MAE
British Society for Middle Eastern Studies — Professor Haleh Afshar
British Society for the History of Science — Dr Tim Boon
British Sociological Association — Professor Susan Halford
British Universities Industrial Relations Association — Professor Tony Dobbins
Council of University Classical Departments — Professor Helen Lovatt
Economic History Society — Professor Catherine Schenk
English Association — Dr Rebecca Fisher
Feminist Studies Association — Dr Laura Clancy and Dr Sara De Benedictis,
History UK — Dr Lucinda Matthews-Jones, Dr Yolana Pringle and Dr Jamie Wood
Linguistics Association of Great Britain — Professor Caroline Heycock
Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association — Professor Anita Biressi
Modern Humanities Research Association — Dr Barbara Burns
Newcomen Society — Dr Jonathan Aylen
Oral History Society — Professor John Gabriel
Royal Musical Association — Professor Simon McVeigh
Royal Society of Literature — Professor Marina Warner, DBE, CBE, FBA
Socio-Legal Studies Association — Professor Rosie Harding
Society for French Studies — Professor Judith Still
Society for Latin American Studies — Professor Patience Schell
Society for Old Testament Study — Dr Walter Houston
Society for Renaissance Studies — Professor Richard Wistreich
Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry — Professor Frank James
Standing Conference of University Drama Departments — Professor Kate Newey
Theatre & Performance Research Association — Professor Roberta Mock
University Council of Modern Languages — Professor Claire Gorrara
Women in German Studies — Professor Ingrid Sharp

See also

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Model motion for UCU branches

Motion: Building a political consensus to defend HE

This Branch/Region/Committee notes:

  1. the predicted HE UK financial crisis in 2020-21 due to an expected collapse in student numbers as a result of Covid-19
  2. that no new funding for HE is currently offered from the Johnson Government, despite spending ~£100bn in self-employment subsidies and furlough
  3. that employers are attacking staff now: SOAS and Roehampton have announced redundancy plans, Roehampton cutting pay; other HEIs are refusing to renew contracts of HPLs, threatening to leave national pay bargaining, etc.
  4. the Statement launched by the Convention for Higher Education, calling for an affordable* socially-progressive rescue package of a 30% tuition fee subsidy and student maintenance grant, which is envisaged to have the greatest benefit to socially inclusive universities, including post-92.

This Branch/Region/Committee believes:

  1. that the Government sees a 2020-21 market failure as an opportunity to shrink the university sector through bankruptcies and mergers,
  2. that we face a limited window of opportunity to get the Convention Statement on the radar of MPs.

This Branch/Region/Committee resolves:

  1. to support the Statement, and to call on branches to circulate it to members, and discuss it and pass a similar motion to this one.
  2. to encourage the discussion and adoption of this statement in institution Academic Boards, Senates, Faculty and School Boards, professional societies, etc.
  3. to set up a Convention Statement Working Group to actively promote it among local MPs, Mayors and Councillors.
  4. to support and publicise future activities of the Convention for Higher Education, see

*To provide context, the last published accounts of the Student Loan Company in 2017-18 reported total loans of £18.2bn. The Treasury estimate of the student loan write-off, ‘RAB’ factor, is at least 40% of the loan or ~£7.28bn a year (a direct subsidy from future taxpayers). Using HESA data, a 30% undergraduate fee reduction would be expected to cost less than £1.2bn (30% of fee = £2bn × 60% after write-off).

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Join the Fight for Higher Education: Stand with Roehampton

Please support this statement. You can add your name with this Google Form.

On 4 May 2020, a brutal assault on Higher Education began when the University of Roehampton announced aggressive proposals to cut jobs with the launch of a severance scheme and — significantly — a proposal to cut pay for academics and professional staff from 1st August. Subsequently there has been a further attack on our working conditions with the announcement of increases in academic workloads and the suspension of research sabbaticals. This has occurred whilst staff are continuing to deliver high quality teaching and exceptional research, as well as rapidly develop new programmes to help increase university income during the pandemic. To date, details of the university’s plan for socially distanced teaching have not been clarified, but additional labour will certainly be required to adapt our programmes. In the given context, it is clear that any cuts would be unsustainable, unfair, and would have a damaging impact on the quality of teaching and research in the university, as well as on staff health and student satisfaction.

We already know that universities are capitalising on the good will of staff, their dedication to students, and their willingness to work well beyond contracted hours, which makes these moves to undermine collective solidarity, security, and support particularly egregious. We also know that the most vulnerable among us are now facing a double attack arising from the pandemic, as well as the marketisation of tertiary education: temporary and casualised workers, migrants, disabled, women and BAME staff and students will be the most affected by cuts. Meanwhile, the highest salaries and the proportion of senior management continues to balloon, undeniably problematic in the context of dwindling resources.

The marketisation of HE continues to play a significant role in the situation that universities now find themselves. Post-92 universities like Roehampton represent a key dimension of this increasingly challenging marketplace, particularly as the government seems to pursue ideological shifts driven by ill-informed notions of vocational skill and inappropriate assessments of ‘value for money’. These moves would amplify inequalities for staff and students, including those arising from the widening stratification of teaching and research.

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Second online Convention Meeting, 23 May

Responding to the crisis II: organising to defend Higher Education in the pandemic era (continued)

Saturday 23 May, 10am – 12 noon

Over 200 colleagues met to regroup and discuss the next steps in the campaign to defend Higher Education.

  1. We heard a series of two minute reportbacks of initiatives taken by specific groups, individuals and union branches and discussed a range of strategies that can be used to resist employer attacks.
  2. We agreed a collective statement, A New Future for Higher Education, to which colleagues can add their signature.
  3. We have begun work on a more detailed document in the next few weeks that can be circulated to MPs and beyond containing our vision for HE, detailed financial analysis and concrete proposals for safeguarding HE’s role in the coming period.
  4. We agreed to call for protests on 1 June in defence of staff facing the loss of their jobs, and in solidarity with actions to Keep Education Safe by members of the National Education Union.

The notes of the meeting are published online in a GoogleDoc where colleagues can continue to contribute towards sections of the ‘vision document’.

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Online Convention Meeting Sat 9 May

Responding to the crisis: organising to defend Higher Education in the pandemic era

Saturday 9 May, 10am – 12 noon

Speakers: John Holmwood and Lee Jones (Campaign for the Public University), Anne Sheppard (Council for Defence of British Universities), Nicola Pratt (British Society for Middle East Studies), and Deepa Driver, Des Freedman and Carlo Morelli (UCU).

Access: This meeting was held on Zoom.


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Re-envisaging the post COVID-19 University – Carlo Morelli

Whoever re-envisages the university, the market is not the answer.

The COVID-19 crisis presents an existential threat to UK Higher Education. However it is one whose roots lie not with the virus, but instead in the failure of a market experiment imposed on universities since 1998 and accelerated after 2009. It is an experiment that has now brought market-focused higher education systems, particularly in the United States, Australia and the UK, to their knees, and it is one that is being paid for by unsustainable student debt blighting the lives of millions of young workers struggling to build a life after completing their education.

Despite this market failure, those currently speaking for UK HE continue to seek to rescue the market from destruction it has wreaked. Whether it is Jo Johnson, ex-cabinet Minister and brother of the Prime Minister, writing as Kings College London’s President’s Professorial Fellow or Alistair Jarvis CEO of Universities UK, pleading for a government bail-out, they cannot admit the fact that, as the Financial Times journalists Andrew Jack and Jamie Smyth point out, the business model of oversees tuition fee-based expansion is broken and unlikely to return.

By contrast an education-focused analysis of HE’s responses to the COVID-19 crisis would look to ensuring the quality of university education is maintained and increased, in order to ensure it remains attractive to future students.

The relationship between education and research sometimes strikes outsiders to HE as odd. But the current crisis has exposed the necessary integration between education and research. Higher education must continue to innovate in content. Thus an education/research-focused analysis recognise the importance of the alternative model of collaborative research that has developed in response to COVID-19. Finally, an education/research-focused analysis recognises the importance inter- and multi-disciplinarity has for solving complex social problems — not just in addressing COVID-19, but wider problems of social inequality and climate collapse.

A market-led analysis does the opposite.

  • Quality of provision is ignored in the assumption that ad hoc on-line teaching is somehow equivalent to face-to-face education. This rests on a failure to acknowledge the expertise of the Open University’s provision, which was built on decades of experience and investment. This lack of insight shows a shocking ignorance and disregard for pedagogy.
  • Calls for additional research funding focus upon demanding additional FEC levels of funding rather than ensuring the sustainability of research team expertise is the centre of attention.
  • Finally, ill-defined ‘low quality’ degrees are identified for cuts rather than recognising that many of these so called ‘low quality’ graduates are now being clapped as heroes every Thursday by the millions whose lives depend upon their skill, commitment and multi-disciplinary team working.

As the cynical saying goes, ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’. The changes in Higher Education currently being discussed by Johnson, Jarvis et al. seek to protect their market system at all costs. Their strategy would strengthen market signals, drive out less profitable providers and lower costs, through the worsening of students’ education and the terms and conditions of the staff that provide it. Training replaces education, and equality considerations are abandoned over market dogma.

The HE Convention, in contrast, seeks to debate the necessity of protecting university education and research from those whose only interest is the value it can generate rather than the quality of education and research. We seek to develop a series of discussions around the future of higher education and research in the UK.

  • What form should high quality education provision take?
  • Is there an alternative to an exam-based system of learning or are other forms of educational provision and assessment possible?
  • How do we protect the critical and analytical underpinning of university education being denuded by the creation of university training?
  • How can co-operative research approaches be institutionalised and funded in the future?

Whatever the answers to these and other questions, COVID-19 tells us one thing. If the market caused the problem, more of the market is not the solution!

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Open letter – Covid-19 demands a rethink of Higher Education funding

End tuition fees and market competition

This open letter was launched 31 March 2020 for immediate publication. You can add your name on this Google Form.

Covid-19 is a wake-up call for the whole of society.

Higher Education faces an existential financial crisis just as university researchers bend every effort to defeat Covid-19.

The benefits of HE are not just limited to research. Mass education from secondary to university created a scientifically-literate population. They drove the shutdown, demanding Boris Johnson and his Government acted.

But Higher Education itself has been undermined by a combination of Government policy, high tuition fees and management greed.

In 2010, the ‘ConDem’ Government raised home student undergraduate tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 a year, and (mostly) abolished block grants. Within three years, mature and part-time student numbers had almost completely collapsed.

Undergraduate numbers were controlled until 2014 when (with the exception of Medicine) the Government removed limits on student recruitment.

This lit the touch paper on a conflagration. For a £9,000 fee, university managers could make easy money out of undergraduate teaching. With no limit on the number of students universities could recruit, many expanded rapidly and built new campuses. But others, mainly post-92 universities, found their student numbers squeezed by intense competition for places in so-called ‘top’ universities. Brand name, not teaching quality, dominated. Undergraduate expansion encouraged further recruitment of overseas students and taught postgraduate courses, where fees could be even higher. Scottish Universities, not permitted to charge high fees, pursued overseas student recruitment in particular.

Before Covid-19, this system was already teetering on the brink. Universities were reportedly indebted by over £10 billion, and the total UK student loan debt had reached £121 billion by March 2019. Undergraduate student numbers were falling and several universities were rumoured close to bankruptcy.

Covid-19 changes the economic equation. Universities in the UK can now expect a sharp fall in total student numbers in September. Many students will delay applications for a year or two rather than apply for online courses. Some universities are contemplating delaying the start of term until January. It may be several years before the overseas student market recovers.

Already there is talk about bringing back the ‘cap’ on student numbers, even temporarily. But more drastic action is required to save Higher Education. Unless the Government acts now, the UK will see mass redundancies of university staff.

We the undersigned believe now is the time for a new deal for UK HE.

It is time to end the disastrous market experiment.

It is currently unthinkable that the Conservatives will privatise the NHS. Schools and further education know that their funding for next year is guaranteed. But Higher Education is uniquely vulnerable to a short-term fall in student recruitment.

  • We need emergency measures to stop universities going bankrupt. If unemployment rises as a result of a downturn, universities have an essential role to play in re-skilling mature students.
  • We need to return to the principle that Higher Education should be available to all who can benefit.

We call on the Government to:

  1. Abolish the current tuition fee system and underwrite the sector. Bring back the block grant.
  2. Work with university managements to safely exit expensive building projects and long-term loans.
  3. Agree that in the meantime there should be no redundancies, and staff on fixed term or other casual contracts should be paid as normal and not dismissed.

Initial signatories include >> Add your name

Carlo Morelli, UCU Scotland President, University of Dundee
Sean Wallis, UCU Branch President, UCU NEC, University College London
Julie Hearn, UCU Branch President, UCU NEC, Lancaster University
Lesley Kane, UCU NEC, Open University
Deepa Govindarajan Driver, UCU Branch President, UCU NEC, University of Reading
Mark Abel, UCU Branch President, UCU NEC, University of Brighton
Marian Mayer, UCU Branch Co-chair, Chair South Region UCU, National Negotiator, Bournemouth University
Sue Abbott, UCU NEC, Chair Equality Committee and Women Members standing Committee, Newcastle University
Pura Ariza, UCU Branch Equality Officer and UCU NEC, Manchester Metropolitan University
Cecily Blyther, UCU NEC, Petroc
Steve Lui, UCU NEC, University of Huddersfield
Lesley McGorrigan, UCU NEC, University of Leeds
Margot Hill, UCU London Region Secretary and UCU NEC, Croydon College
Lauren Heyes-mullan, FE lecturer, The City of Liverpool College
David Whyte, UCU Branch Vice President, University of Liverpool
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A spiral of costs? Is the USS pension scheme doomed? – Sean Wallis


The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) was set up in 1975, replacing a stocks-and-shares Defined Contribution scheme called FSSU.

For forty-four years, from 1975 to 2011, USS paid out a Final Salary pension based on a 1/80 accrual rate. This meant that if you paid in for forty years you would retire on half your annual salary. Far from being unaffordable, the scheme grew. Only in 2011 did we begin to see the introduction of ‘Career Average Revalued Earnings’ (CARE) replacing Final Salary. Contributions for employees until 1997 were 8%, on the basis of covering historic problems created by the FSSU, reduced to 6.35% from 1997. Employer contributions fluctuated over the time period (10% initially, rising to 18.55% in 1983, 14% from 1997, 16% from 2009).

But for over forty years the scheme was essentially very stable. As a ‘last man standing’ multi-employer scheme in a growing HE sector funded by government spending, the risk of default was considered to be very very low.

In 2011 we began to see the beginning of ‘reforms’ that have increased income to USS and, apparently paradoxically, led to ever increasing claims of deficits. These included closing Final Salary to new entrants (but increasing costs to 7.5%), dividing the workforce and increasing the retirement age from 60 to 65. At the time, these changes were justified on a number of grounds: the 2008 recession had hit pension assets, staff were living longer, etc. As we know, 2011 was not the end of the ‘reform’ programme but the start of the dismantling of USS Final Salary and now Defined Benefit.

Our first response to the alleged ‘crisis’ in USS funding has to be, why was it that USS was able to pay out a higher-value Final Salary pension scheme for 44 years? How can this be possible when we are told that a lower-value CARE scheme — with a higher 8% employee contribution — is now ‘unaffordable’ and destined for deficits?

What has changed?

First Actuarial’s analysis, Progressing the valuation of USS (Salt and Benstead 2017) projected forwards to show that the shared 8%/18% contribution rates were sufficient for the scheme to pay pensioners for the next thirty years without touching the assets (£60bn by that point). So in fact, in its own terms, USS should be in a steady-state, its assets growing through investments returning levels of 5-10% pa, well in excess of CPI inflation at around 3%. Not only is there no deficit, but the scheme has a healthy working balance — on most recent official figures, £67.5bn in 2019!

Made in Westminster

The central assumption underpinning the health of the pension scheme – the very low risk of default – has been undermined by Central Government. The chaotic expansion and competition of the tuition fee market ‘reforms’ launched in 2011 with the £9k undergraduate fee have been devastating for the sector. But it has also undermined USS. Continue reading

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This potential University funding crisis is due to unrepayable student loans, not Brexit – Sean Wallis

You have to admire their cheek.

Theresa May’s Conservative Government is leaking to the press a policy proposal from a review they commissioned which, if implemented as-is, is likely to prove catastrophic for universities in England, and in the rest of the UK by extension.

They are proposing to reverse the headline Higher Education policy decision of their ConDem forbears — the £9,000 (now £9,250) a year home undergraduate student fee in England, first introduced in 2012.

Raising fees from £6,500 to £9,000 was always socially regressive. It meant that poorer students would face a lifetime of student debt, whereas wealthy students could get a cheap loan for the duration of their study. The richest 10% avoid thousands of pounds in interest by paying upfront. Raising fees has put off a generation of mature students from re-entering education. The ‘heavy lifters of social mobility’, the post-92 universities, the Open University and Birkbeck College have been hardest hit by the Government policy changes.

But back in 2011, the universities were also supported by additional Government funding (so-called ‘block grants’). These were partially abolished at precisely the same time as the £9,000 fee was introduced: 100% abolished in Arts and Humanities, reduced in STEM subjects and not cut in Medicine. The abolition of the block grant was not accidental. It was intimately tied to the market idea of the student as consumer, so if students chose to move college or subject, money would flow accordingly. But this also means that if the Government resurrected the block grant, it would undermine its market policy.

Reducing the cost of education to students is a welcome move — like the staff union UCU, I believe in the principle that education should be free to all who can benefit — but the Government is floating the idea of cutting fees without replacing the additional financial support for the universities they cut in 2012.

This is going to hurt.

The detail of what is likely to be officially proposed seems to be being leaked to the press in order to gauge public reaction. It may change, as the proposals are ill-thought through, piecemeal and do little to address core issues of the tuition fee market. But if it is implemented as-is, this will be the most significant State intervention in Higher Education since 2011. This time the intervention will be extremely costly for the university sector.

So far, public comment appears to be directed against the allegedly poor value for money some university degrees offer. The Government appears to hope that they can rely on public anger against greedy vice chancellors, student dissatisfaction, or that favourite of the tabloid press, the Mickey Mouse Degree.

The boom before the bust

The Government is catching university senior managements on the hop.

The policy of fees-and-loans was welcomed by self-serving senior management groups who stood to benefit from higher fees. Many universities expanded aggressively on the premise that the golden goose would lay its eggs for ever.

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