Universities: Financial Sustainability

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:26 pm on 11th February 2019.

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Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Shadow Secretary of State for Education 4:26 pm, 11th February 2019

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I want to take this opportunity to wish my comrade, my hon. Friend 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 that

“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.