Just like football, UK universities need a regulator

by Professor Julia Black PBA

25 Apr 2024

This might be the first time I – or anyone – has compared football and universities. Both are iconic pillars of UK culture and history and global success stories. But while football looks set to gain a regulator designed ‘to promote and protect the financial resilience of English football’, our universities are in crisis – partly because of a failure in regulation and oversight.

Government likes to claim that the UK is a ‘science superpower’. We perform strongly in international league tables, for sure, but like football, the higher education system consists of many local institutions which serve their communities as well as global players. But the ‘superpower’ rhetoric masks the fact that our higher education system is in crisis. The public funding model for both teaching and research is under severe strain, if not broken.

As a result, universities are cutting back on courses, and the arts and humanities in particular are bearing the brunt. With close to 50 universities and counting shrinking their staff numbers or closing courses, it’s a bleak picture, impacting negatively on local communities, student access to education, and the health of individual disciplines. Things are starting to look like a torn-up football net: full of holes.

Universities add considerably to our society, adding £130bn a year to the national economy and supporting more than 760,000 jobs – 2.8 per cent of all those in the UK. In a ‘university town’, that number can be even greater; universities in the North West of England contribute £10.4bn to the regional economy. They attract considerable numbers – close to 700,000 in 2021/2022 - of international students a year – students who can choose to be educated elsewhere.

And though they are increasingly derided by government (notwithstanding its apparent support for the creative industries), the arts and humanities subjects which are facing the most severe cuts, matter. It is through them which we can understand people, the world and – combined with science subjects – tackle some of the greatest issues of our time; take the climate crisis, post-pandemic public health and the responsible design and use of AI to name a few. They are critical to a thriving liberal democracy – it is no coincidence that autocratic regimes seek either to repress or take control of history, literature or the arts – they are the cultural lifeblood of societies, and often uncomfortable sources of critique.

There are many reasons why things have got to this state but the question is, what should be done about it, and by whom? Universities are rightly independent but their activities are significantly impacted by government terms around the funding of both teaching and research, and increasingly on their operations. And with responsibility for universities split uncomfortably across government departments, there isn’t one part of government which looks at our higher education system as just that, a system, or which is responsible for the cumulative impacts of its often divergent policies.

The main regulator in England, the Office for Students (OfS), regulates universities’ teaching provision and increasingly other aspects of life on campus, like new provisions on free speech. Yet notwithstanding their clear public benefit, the OfS, unlike the new football regulator, has no responsibility to ‘promote and protect’ the financial resilience of the university system; nor does any other part of Government.

We need an urgent review and thorough overhaul of the way government engages with universities, including a robust, independent regulator responsible for the system as a whole – both teaching and research.

And we need a coherent policy across government, including on immigration and security, which recognises that the key to the strength of our universities is their international character. We need to ensure that our research and higher education system remains ‘responsibly open’ to the world.

If we are at all interested in maintaining the health and viability of universities, let alone hope it retains the globally strong position it still has, then the UK government needs to start take the survival of our research and higher education system as seriously as it seems to be taking football. It’s more than a game.

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