Staffordshire University’s Vice-Chancellor says higher education is facing an existential threat and the next government must make it an absolute priority to avert the crisis.
Professor Martin Jones believes the current path of underfunding and political wrangling over which degrees should be studied could prove disastrous and is warning it may lead to “Levelling Up in reverse” for economies like North Staffordshire’s.
He also thinks that rhetoric branding some courses as “rip-off degrees” really doesn’t help promote participation in higher education. And, he says, that the next Prime Minister should also aim to separate out decisions about overseas students’ visas from a wider immigration debate.
Speaking exclusively to Daily Focus, Professor Jones said that despite major hurdles faced, which have included the need to make a number of redundancies, Staffordshire University would continue to promote itself as a ‘civic institution’ rooted in the area.
And it would work with businesses to provide the necessary skills and knowledge for employees – through avenues like the increasingly popular Degree Apprenticeships.
He said: “We are facing some major challenges but we are not alone in this.
“A recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers* predicted that by 2025 more than 50 per cent of the sector will be in difficulty when it comes to generating a surplus on income expenditure.
“So, the UK higher education is in an existential crisis at the moment with challenged income schemes.
“The maximum tuition fee we can charge has been frozen at £9,250 for nearly six years and that has to change.
“The hope is that the next Government will index link this back to inflation.
“I have a major meeting coming up in the next few weeks with other vice-chancellors regarding lobbying the Government about this. We are also writing a white paper to influence the incoming government.”
Martin added that given its dual roles as a major employer and higher education provider, Staffordshire University plays a vital role in the area.
He added: “The household average income in Stoke-on-Trent is circa £25,000 to £26,000 but our average salary is higher than that. So you can see the important role the university plays in the local economy.
“I’m lobbying where I can and because I’ve got an economic geography background I can talk in a way about the economy that can influence people, including our local MPs who are supportive and horrified by the situation.”
Martin also revealed that he had been talking to Labour Leader Sir Kier Starmer and his advisors about the issues faced.
Asked what he would say to Sir Kier if his party formed the next government, he said: “I would say if he doesn’t produce a new funding settlement for higher education the consequences will be like Levelling Up in reverse.
“However, during Labour’s last party conference he reasserted the need to have 50 per cent participation rate in higher education – a figure that Tony Blair used.
“So a lot of vice-chancellors, including me, are hanging on to that.
“To put it in perspective, the national participation figure now is 39 per cent. But the figure in Stoke-on-Trent is about 17.5 per cent and Staffordshire is 22 per cent. So, basically, the participation rate here is half the national average – we need that boost.”
Martin also reinforced the university’s role as an anchor institution in the area.
He said: “I see us as a true civic university in that we have a multi-faceted role connected to business and the community around the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire postcodes.
“In fact, I think we have been a genuinely civic university all the way back to the early 20th century when we were the Central School of Science and Technology teaching pottery and mining classes, through to us being a technical college and a polytechnic, and then becoming a university in 1992.
He is also proud of the role the University plays for businesses, which has recently received a funding boost.
Martin said: “Since 2016 our leading growth area has been degree apprenticeships – we are the fastest growing higher education institute in the UK in terms of these qualifications; we work with sectors ranging from engineering to the police to deliver them.
“When I came here in 2017 there were 212 apprentices. We now have around the 4,000 mark – between a quarter and a third of our total students. Our target is to have at least 7,500 by 2027.
“We’ve just received a near-£1 million grant from The Office for Students to boost our degree apprenticeships over the next two years, so this is really going to drive us forward.
“I think it’s fair to say we’ve harnessed the power of work-based learning for business needs.
“That said, programmes in this area have not undermined traditional education – we’ve kept routes open in sociology, social work, the humanities and computing, for example.
“We want to be an institution to that provides knowledge as well as skills – where anyone wanting to learn is welcome.”
*The PWC Report referred to is – Industry in Focus: UK Higher Education Financial Stability Report. Click here for details