UK universities seek government guarantee on research funding

Michelle K. Wallace

Britain’s universities are asking the government to underwrite up to £2.2bn in annual research funding that has been jeopardised by falling income from international student fees due to coronavirus.

With the annual total of £7bn in international fees set to fall sharply as foreign students stay away from UK universities because of concerns over safety or their ability to pay, Universities UK, which represents the sector, has proposed a government guarantee to tide institutions over until autumn, when the level of revenues becomes clearer.

UUK warned that failure to rapidly find ways to make up for the drop in fees from overseas students would trigger an exodus of academics and risk long-term damage to the country’s historically strong research base.

“My single greatest worry is the potential that our research infrastructure could be damaged if we are not provided with a backstop,” said Professor Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of Cambridge university. “If we are not in a position to say with confidence that we have income to support postgraduates, people will leave the university and the sector.”

International students pay fees that are up to three times higher than those paid by UK and EU students, and the money helps universities pay research overheads that are not fully covered by government grants.

The government last month approved a support package for universities, including an advance on £2.6bn in domestic tuition fees for the coming year. But the Treasury has balked at requests for a further grant.

Prof Toope said that Cambridge had already used £15m of its own reserves to extend until the end of July the employment contracts of postgraduates whose funding ran out in the past three months.

“There is an urgency to this,” he said, warning that grants for 1,500 postgraduate positions would come up for renewal by the end of the year and could not be funded by Cambridge. “If we don’t have a decision soon so we can start reassuring staff that we will be able to keep them on contracts, we will lose people.”

Steven Smith, vice-chancellor at Exeter University, also called for extra support. “Government appears genuinely committed to supporting the research base and is now working with Universities UK to find a mechanism to do so,” he said. “The signs are genuinely encouraging, but the discussions are in the early stages”.

The Department for Education said that if existing funding was insufficient, “we will only intervene further where we believe there is a case to do so, and only where we believe intervention is possible and appropriate, and as a last resort”.

It added: “In such instances, we will work with providers to review their circumstances and assess the need for restructuring and any attached conditions. DfE will be working with [the Treasury] and other government departments to develop this restructuring regime.”

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