Why tuition fees could bankrupt universities

A new report warns that more institutions will be at a "high risk of failing".

One of the strongest arguments against the coalition's higher education reforms is that they will put more universities at risk of bankruptcy. The decision to cut the teaching budget by 80 per cent - including the entire budget for arts and humanities - and introduce a system in which money follows the student, means that universities will be left to sink or swim according to the whims of the market.

This point was well made in a recent letter by 681 Oxbridge academics (and you thought 365 economists was a lot) to the Independent. They wrote: "[W]e fear that the proposed new model by which "the money follows the student" will produce random effects in the HE sector, depriving some courses of income streams, and decimating the funding for teaching in some institutions, without any coherent and publicly announced policy in regard to which of these institutions and courses the Government believes should be left to fail. As has been publicly announced, this is to be left to the market to decide."

Today's report by the National Audit Office rightly argues that students need to be told more about those universities at risk. Last year, seven universities were placed on an "at high risk" register but this could increase to 23 by the end of the first year of the new fees being introduced. A previous report by the University College Union put 49 of England's 130 higher education institutions at 'very high', 'high', or 'high-medium' risk of serious impact from cuts to the teaching budget.

The Higher Education Funding Council currently waits for three years before it publishes a list of universities at high risk of financial failure and, even then, the list is not made publicly available. However, those "at risk" are known to include Thames Valley University and London Met. The NAO rightly argues that this arrangement should be reviewed. It notes:

As a greater proportion of funding begins to follow the student, the funding council should consider whether the current arrangements strike the right balance between protecting institutions and their students, on the one hand, and enabling prospective students to take more informed decisions on where to study, on the other.

With fees due to rise from £3,290 to a minimum of £6,000, the pressure for transparency will grow - and rightly so.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear