Centrica's deal with the US is important - but we won't feel the benefits for aeons

It's a start, but just a start.

Today Centrica struck a £10bn supply deal with the US  - describing it as a "landmark agreement".

"This... represents a significant step forward in our strategy, enabling Centrica to strengthen its position along the gas value chain and helping to ensure the UK's future energy security," said Sam Laidlaw, Centrica's chief executive in a statement.

Just how landmark is it? Well, it's effectively the first time the UK has signed a gas import deal with the US - so it's important for a number of reasons.

US natural gas prices are very much cheaper than those in the UK and Europe - around a quarter to a fifth. Here's the thing though: this deal won't lower UK prices all that much, as although the price of the contract is indexed to the US gas market, there is a significant fixed fee on top, which roughly doubles that price. In addition, the volumes of gas involved aren't big enough to have much of an impact on price anyway.

But the important thing about this deal is that it's the first - and therefore a gateway for all sorts of similar contracts.

"More and more deals will get signed with the US from Europe" says Jonathan Lane, Head of Power Consulting at GlobalData. "This will push the US price up, and the European price down. Natural gas prices will eventually harmonise".

The other benefit of the deal is one of security. At the moment the UK relies on a small number of gas suppliers - and heavily on Qatar. The contract with the US will bring some diversity, increasing potential sources and energy security if a pipeline fails.

This is all set very much in the future though - the first shipments aren't due until 2018, so the current strain on our gas supplies may continue for a while.

More on this here.

 
Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from deficit into debt. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

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