Budget 2023: Nothing for students to see here

If any students, or universities and their staff, were expecting some assistance from the government in the budget last week, they were sadly disappointed. Students and their living costs are not mentioned. Instead, some families can expect limited respite on their costs that may have a knock on effect on students. But analysis by the Resolution Foundation concludes that the budget is a ‘hunt for growth’. This will mean a boost in employment whilst leaving “household incomes stagnant, as citizens pay higher taxes to see many services cut”. But the government approach is predicated on the notion that families will support their student children. This is a false notion in many cases.

Nothing more for fewer students.

Scouring the budget and associated papers (pdf)  failed to reveal anything that is likely to offer more to students in the short term. Instead, there is a concerted move in the background to limit the number of students taking out government backed loans to enter university.

The reasons behind this are more evident in the predictions from the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast,  ‘Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2023’.

Student finance features prominently in this report due to the large economic impact of ongoing loans to students.  This will increase over time as outstanding loans and stand at around £460 billion in 20 years or so. The fact this is seen as a ‘burden’ on the taxpayer, and not an investment in the future, is itself telling. It is this expanding ‘burden’ explains why there is a move toward limiting the number of students taking out loans.  There is now no prospect of more support despite rising inflation.

Making students work harder.

Back in January TEFS reported on the impact of a government plan to make more students work longer hours in part-time jobs (27th January 2023 ‘Hold the front page: students must work longer and harder’).  This was part of a plan to reduce the numbers of economically inactive people in the population. Students make up a considerable number of these and the budget aims to get more into work across the board.

To this end, there has been a slight decline in the number of economically inactive students since this time last year and this appears to be a reflection of more entering the part-time job market as we recovered from the pandemic lockdowns. Now, students constitute 26% cent of the working-age inactive population and 5.5 per cent of the working-age population.

However, this still leaves a majority of fortunate students able to concentrate fully on their studies while many others are restricted by loss of time to part-time jobs. This is hardly fair or equal.

Planning for fewer students.

There are various ways to deter students or restrict them from entering higher education. One would be simply to return to capping numbers. This might be an open and honest approach that would enable universities to plan more effectively. However, the free-market idea pervades the current government that is working in the shadows. Other ways include lowering support for students to deter all but those from the better off families. This plan is well underway it seems.  Another would be to remove qualifications such as BTECs and replace them with T-levels not suited to progression to university. This could easily be viewed as crude ‘social engineering’ (see TEFS 16th August 2022 ‘With exam results looming, the government is promoting T-levels as ‘Social Engineering’).  The consequences will be far reaching and thwart the aspirations of many less well-off students (see TEFS 3rd March 2023 ‘The high price of losing BTECs’).

Minimum grades.

Add to this introduction minimum A-level grades to top off the plan and it’s a perfect storm. The plan to restrict loans to students through setting minimum grades has been around for some time. The government view from last year was setting the scene for this to happen and no doubt it will emerge soon. Last year there was fierce opposition to the idea, stressing the obvious impact on the least advantaged students. Former director for fair access at the office for students didn’t pull any punches with this in the Guardian, ‘UK government wants to reduce university places for poorest’. He is right and has also concluded this is the clear aim of the government.

Added 26th March 2023.  Since posting, the Sunday Times today reported ‘Ministers to rule on entry grades for university’.  They reported, “One option would be to impose a blanket ban on students who fail to meet the requirements. Alternatively, they could be denied access to the student loan system, which officials claim would achieve the same goal”.  The latter would enable those with family financial support to proceed while the rest are locked out and this is probably what will happen. The Times was quick to note that, “Ministers argue that the reforms should encourage more young people to consider apprenticeships and other qualifications”. Enough said.

What about universities?

This is a very different story and the focus of the budget was on research and economic development in a smaller number of centres.  This will favour a fewer but larger universities and leave most others out in the cold with less funding.

The budget praises our ‘top’ universities and promises more for science research and technology. This cites the latest Times Higher World University Rankings that tends to favour universities in the UK more than other rankings. However, the reality is that most UK universities have been slipping down the world rankings in recent years.  The QS world rankings out this week adds to the fear that things are not going so well. Cambridge and Oxford are listed in the top five in the world, but others in the UK have been slipping in the table gradually over the last ten years or so.  This includes many in the so called ‘elite’ Russell Group. This cannot be ignored by self-congratulatory complacency and government policy must take a considerable share of the blame.

Fewer opportunities for students to progress in science and technology.

The government’s policy appears to be one of cuts and consolidation into a smaller number of research centres. For several years there has been a focus on PhD studentship awards going to as limited number of centres.  Recent moves by the main funder, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) show how drastic the consolidation is becoming. To coincide with the budget, Times Higher reported that, ‘Science PhDs axed as doctoral centres shuttered’.  The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is to cut the number of doctoral training centres from 75 to “about 40”. Four years ago, it was 115 spread around many more universities. 

The projection for the research budget looks bleak. UKRI is having to cope with real-terms cuts for the next two years announced in their 2022-23 – 2024-25 budget allocations. Meanwhile there no mention of funding for joining the EU research programme Horizon Europe in the government’s its ten-point for UK science that is designed to grow the economy, But the plan to improve lives through investment in science, technology and innovation, and “cement” the UK’s position as a science superpower, has conspicuously failed to mention Horizon Europe association as part of its vision. This is despite the crucial  role of EU funding stressed in the government’s own ‘Independent Review of the UK’s Research, Development and Innovation Organisational Landscape’ released earlier this month.

Going in the wrong direction.

In terms of science and technology, it appears that the UK is slipping backwards. However, the impact may take years to be fully realised.  In the meantime, the contraction and consolidation of doctoral training will restrict the options of many talented UK science and technology graduates. No doubt the elite university centres will recruit UK postgraduates from their own ranks, or similar universities, in addition to expanding overseas recruitment.  But the removal of EU funding will make the latter more difficult.  The outcome will be obvious for students from lower income backgrounds. Financial burdens and part-time jobs will impact their success, then they will find fewer paid postgraduate opportunities before them. But some will find that their families fund their PhD positions and bypass the less well off.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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