The closure of universities deemed to be offering low quality or poor value for money is a an opportunity, not a crisis for the Government, and Covid-19 gives the perfect excuse to carry out much needed reforms to the higher education system, argues Robert Hyde

Some British universities are in a real crisis, and about a dozen now realistically face going bust. In fact, thirteen mostly lower-ranked institutions that entered the crisis in a weak financial position, may now find themselves battling to stave off insolvency in the near future.

This emergency has been in the making for years, but with a substantial drop in international postgraduate student numbers expected, as well as a potential slashing of the domestic student population for at least the year, already troubled institutions are now heading for disaster. But can this really be blamed on Covid-19?

Despite years of increasing bureaucracy, inept and grossly overpaid non-academic management taking the reins and annual lecturer strikes, British universities remain among the best in the world, and incomparably the best in the EU. While there are few sectors of the world economy in which the UK is actually globally competitive, education remains one of them.

International league tables, the rankings of which are taken seriously, have judged the UK's best universities as among the world's elite. In the QS World University Rankings, only one eurozone university (French) is placed in the top 50; Germany's best is 64th; Italy's, 170th. The only continental university that approaches our best is in Switzerland, outside of the EU. Globally, Britain is second only to the USA.

So, in international terms, the best British universities are outstanding. Post Covid-19 the UK's best universities will remain within the global elite, without the need for a Government bailout. While this probably has a bit to do with an existing reputation (we benefit from historic glories) and English being the global language, students attending the best British universities will continue to gain a worthwhile education. That is not to say, however, that all British universities are world beating, or the continued decline in free speech and academic freedom at the elite universities isn't concerning.

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While Britain's elite universities are well placed to weather the Covid-19 storm, it is the lower tier universities which are going to suffer.

It will be the very universities which are already offering poor value for students and taxpayers alike, which are likely to be the most impacted by Covid-19, which the Government should see as an opportunity, not a problem. These very universities were already failing before Covid-19, and Government inaction here will not be detrimental to the best universities, but will merely mean the worst universities are no longer able to take advantage of students.

Moving forward, there needs to be a broader recognition that university is not for everyone. The Blairite idea that 50% of the population should be university educated is an expensive and counterproductive waste of time and money, both for taxpayers and the students themselves. More school leavers should be undertaking technical and vocational training, which is a route to greater productivity for the economy, and higher lifetime earnings for the students.

Engineering graduates earn (on average) over twice as much as arts graduates. A major part of the calculation of whether to go to university should be based on the market, and which skills are actually in demand, and what value is placed upon those skills. Of course, we do need arts and even humanities graduates, but does the UK really need to be educating 100'000 of them annually?

Is it Covid-19, or the fact that just shy of 50% of British graduates end up working in non-graduate jobs up to five years after earning their degree, that is the real cause of the crisis?

While in the short term a plea from Universities UK for a sector-specific bailout package has gone largely unanswered, in the longer term the Government should be looking to overhaul the higher education system, to deliver better value for students, taxpayers and the economy as a whole. Moving away from arts and social studies degrees, towards skills training and commercially valuable skills is essential for the British economy. The closure of degree programmes deemed to be offering low quality or poor value for money is a good place to start, and Covid-19 gives the perfect excuse to carry out these reforms.

In the future, we should be more honest with school leavers about the value of universities, which while working out okay for some, are really only of value for a limited number of very academically gifted students, looking to go into medicine, engineering, law or the like. For tens if not hundreds of thousands of students, humanity and gender study degrees simply aren't worth the paper they're printed on. Universities are selling an extended debt fuelled party, not a bright future, to thousands of students.

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