Universities prepare for a fall in student numbers

More than half of English universities expect fewer students as a result of the fees rise.

Will tuition fees of £9,000 deter pupils from applying to university? That's one of the questions that has been occupying David Willetts in recent months. Today, we're a little closer to getting an answer. A survey of institutions by the Higher Education Funding Council [HEFC] has found that more than half of English universities expect to be teaching fewer UK and EU undergraduates when the fee rise kicks in next year. On average, universities expect a 1.9 per cent fall in numbers, but one institution is forecasting a 20 per cent drop while five others believe numbers will be cut by a tenth. Just under a quarter - 24 per cent - expect an increase and a fifth anticipate no change.

It's something of a headache for Willetts, who, while eschewing the target culture favoured by New Labour, has made it clear that he both hopes and expects student numbers to rise. As Steve Smith, the recently departed head of Universities UK, told me when I interviewed him: "Willetts wants more people at university, not everyone in the Conservative Party agrees with that." The key question, of course, is whether this is likely to be a temporary or a permanent reduction. When Labour tripled fees to £3,000, student numbers fell by 15,000 (3.7 per cent) in the first year (2006) but they later more than recovered.

Then there's the question of what it all means for universities' balance sheets. Under the Willetts model, money will follow the student, meaning that some universities dramatically expand, while others shrink. The HEFC warns that the sector continues to operate on "very fine margins" which make insitutions vulnerable to "small changes". It adds that universities will be in a "financially sustainable position" in the medium term, but some "will need to generate better financial results in the longer term". All of which raises the question of whether some institutions could even go bankrupt. When I asked Smith about this, he replied that ministers would never allow this to happen "because they'll work out what it would mean for the local economy." In some communities, he pointed out, the university is one of the largest, if not the largest, net contributors to the economy. Like the banks, the universities, it appears, are too big to fail.

But ultimately if the decision to charge the highest public university fees in the worldleads to fewer students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, then Willetts's grand experiment will be judged a failure.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Paul Nuttall is like his party: sad, desperate and finished

The party hope if they can survive until March 2019, they will grow strong off disillusionment with Brexit. They may not make it until then. 

It’s a measure of how far Ukip have fallen that while Theresa May faced a grilling over her social care U-Turn and Jeremy Corbyn was called to account over his past, the opening sections of Andrew Neill’s interview with Paul Nuttall was about the question of whether or not his party has a future.

The blunt truth is that Ukip faces a battering in this election. They will be blown away in the seats they have put up a candidate in and have pre-emptively retreated from numerous contests across the country.

A party whose leader in Wales once said that climate change was “ridiculous” is now the victim of climate change itself. With Britain heading out of the European Union and Theresa May in Downing Street, it’s difficult to work out what the pressing question in public life to which Ukip is the answer.

Their quest for relevance isn’t helped by Paul Nuttall, who at times tonight cast an unwittingly comic figure. Pressing his case for Ukip’s burka ban, he said earnestly: “For [CCTV] to work, you have to see people’s faces.” It was if he had intended to pick up Nigel Farage’s old dogwhistle and instead put a kazoo to his lips.

Remarks that are, written down, offensive, just carried a stench of desperation. Nuttall’s policy prescriptions – a noun, a verb, and the most rancid comment underneath a Mail article – came across as a cry for attention. Small wonder that senior figures in Ukip expect Nuttall to face a move on his position, though they also expect that he will see off any attempt to remove him from his crown.

But despite his poor performance, Ukip might not be dead yet. There was a gleam of strategy amid the froth from Nuttall in the party’s pledge to oppose any continuing payment to Brussels as part of the Brexit deal, something that May and Corbyn have yet to rule out.

If May does manage to make it back to Downing Street on 8 June, the gap between campaign rhetoric – we’ll have the best Brexit, France will pay for it – and government policy – we’ll pay a one-off bill and continuing contributions if need be – will be fertile territory for Ukip, if they can survive as a going concern politically and financially, until March 2019.

On tonight’s performance, they’ll need a better centre-forward than Paul Nuttall if they are to make it that far. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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