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 Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Vice-Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education) 4:26 pm, 11th February 2019

I will respond to several of those points, but I do not think it is appropriate for the Government or the OfS to comment on the position of individual providers.

In terms of the role of the Office for Students in HE financial sustainability, as I have stated, the new regulatory framework that has been created brings a risk-based approach to monitoring financial viability and sustainability, in order above all to protect student interests. The reforms have provided for that framework, and it means that the OfS, as regulator, can pay greater attention and require more specific action if there is institutional vulnerability.

Ultimately, these are autonomous bodies and leaders of HE providers are responsible for ensuring their institutions’ financial viability. They are not part of the public sector; they are autonomous institutions. During the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, a key point voted on by Labour Members was that universities would remain independent and autonomous. The OfS will therefore work closely with providers in financial difficulty, but neither the OfS nor the Department for Education will prop up failing providers. The OfS may enhance its monitoring or impose a specific condition of registration, requiring a provider to improve its financial performance, but we need providers at risk of any financial difficulties to come forward, so that we and the OfS can work with them on improving those registration conditions, which may require a provider to strengthen its student protection plan.

I turn to the issue of HE provider failure. The aim of the new HE regulatory approach is that the Office for Students will be able to act in anticipation of developments such as course closure or market exit, rather than in reaction to them. As I have said, under the new regulatory framework, providers must meet a set of registration conditions aimed at ensuring that they are financially viable, sustainable and well-managed organisations. The new HE regulatory framework has been designed to promote diversity, innovation and choice in HE, in the interests of students, and achieving that does not equate to propping up any particular failing HE provider.

In a competitive market, providers that fail to meet quality standards for students’ expectations may see their financial position come under even greater pressure. There is an expectation that providers may, in a small number of cases, exit the market altogether as a result of strong competition. However, the OfS’s primary interest is ensuring that any such closures do not adversely affect students and their ability to conclude their studies and obtain a degree. Students are making a considerable investment when they commit to a programme of study—investing their time, energy and money—and it is important that they should be able to complete those studies.

On protecting students and student protection plans, the OfS has the powers to ensure that all registered HE providers have these plans in place to safeguard students’ interests against the risk of financial failure. It is a registration condition that they have such a student protection plan in place. Student protection plans will set out what students can expect to happen in the event of a course, campus or department closure or if an institution exits the market. The plans must address the specific risks faced by the provider, and may include measures such as the transfer of students to another provider or financial compensation. In addition, the new regulatory framework sets out that all providers must have a refund policy.

On the pensions issue that the hon. Lady mentioned, the Government’s consultation on the teachers’ pension scheme changes closes this Wednesday—13 February. I encourage all providers to participate in that consultation, which is an important one. It is right that this live consultation should seek views on the impact of the proposal on higher education institutions, and we will finalise funding decisions once the consultation has concluded.

The hon. Lady mentioned the post-18 review being led by Philip Augar, which is still ongoing. More information on the review will be available in due course, and it will be published in due course. I will not speculate on what recommendations the independent panel will make on HE tuition fees, or on what the final conclusions will be. However, the post-18 review terms of reference include a focus on ensuring choice and competition across the joined-up post-18 education and training sector. The review will look at how to support a more dynamic market in provision while maintaining the financial sustainability of a world-class higher education and research sector. I look forward to the review being published in due course.

When it comes to the hon. Lady’s own position on the financial sustainability of the HE sector, I have to say that of all the universities I have visited and all the vice-chancellors I have spoken to, not one supports Labour’s position of removing tuition fees and completely crippling the HE sector’s financial position. The removal of fees completely would ensure that instability returned and student number caps returned. When it comes to access and participation plans, the money spent on them has risen from £430 million to £860 million in recent years, and that money would end up being capped. Labour does not have any answer on what it would do to ensure that the finance of our universities is protected for the longer term.