Grants not fees – squaring the Lib Dem circle

Liberal Democrats should not give up the battleground of higher education finance just yet. The Party should counter-attack by arguing the case within the Coalition for substantial maintenance grants for students paid out of cutting university bureaucracy and cross-subsidy from foreign students. The Party will have to take on the red tape merchants of British higher education and the immigration obsessives in parts of the Conservative Party. However, taking on bureaucrats and right wing obsessives in the cause of student grants is a far better place from which to win the higher education argument.

Amid the student demonstrations and party splitting controversies over increases in tuition fees, maintenance grants have been overlooked. Yet maintenance grants for students are at least as important as tuition fees. Firstly, unlike fees which are not paid upfront, lack of significant maintenance grants for poorer students cause immediate here and now distress. How do students from poorer homes pay for accommodation, food, heating, books and even the odd beer? There is help in a battery of confusing funds and loans but it is still limited in its impact for students from even quite deprived backgrounds.

This lack of maintenance grants has a direct impact on the little discussed or analysed issue of the “equality of study” experience. Students of limited means are flipping burgers, waitressing, car washing, serving behind bars and occasionally running suprisingly successfull small businesses. All of this work-to-earn-cash behaviour while entirely understandable from a students desperate economic perspective undermines prospects for educational success. This is especially so in heavy duty subjects such as law, engineering, languages, medicine and the core sciences subjects. While their more afluent peers can spend quality educational time in the library or lab, improving their chances of academic success, far too many students are spending precious hours that should be devoted to study working hard in at least one job to keep body and soul together.

One way Liberal Democrats can really level up the playing field in British higher education is by arguing the case within the Coalition for a substantial package of maintenance grants for British resident students (under EU Law we are allowed to discriminate in favour of British residents).

There are two major sources of potential funding for such grants. University red tape and foreign student fees.

University red-tape

It is often claimed that non-front line costs are not that great and cutting such costs will not make that much difference. However, the figures for British universities are startling. Our universities obliged to return data on staff numbers for academic and non-academic postings. Similar figures are available for academic and non-academic staff across the European Higher Education Area and for US universities.

The data reveals that for every one member of academic staff, US universities have 0.76 non-academic staff members and the EHEA Mean is 0.75. The British university figure is 1.24.

(My thanks to a member of one of the major consultancies who put these figures together for me.)

Hence in every one hundred British university employees over sixty will be non-academic staff and under forty will be academics who teach or research. In EU and US universities by contrast only forty out of one hundred will be non-academics. In other words in a typical British university for every two academics on staff it employs 1 extra non-academic staff member than its European equivalent. Given that in 2008, the British niversities reported they employed 136,660 academic staff these figures suggest the universities are employing 66900 more staff than their European equivalent.

It is difficult to express exactly the cost of this additional non-academic staff. One reasoable rubric to get some idea of the cost is to use the 2008 UK average wage of £479 per week. This would represent an expenditure on 66900 staff of £1.6 billion. One could make a case that this overstated the position. But even if it overrstated the position by half (with all the 66,900 being paid less than half the average wage) this would still amount to £800 million.

In direct grant terms £800 million would be 100,000 full grants of £8,000. If the employment costs were closer to the average wage then that figure would double.

It should be recognised that the reason for this over-staffing in British universities is by no means just the fault of those institutions. While there may have been a significant degree of bureaucratic empire building and costly ‘make work’ practices this top heavy bureaucratic approach to higher education has been encouraged and facilitated by the state, Endless missives from Whitehall, myriad targets, surveillance systems and special programmes have created an army of non-academic staff to feed Whitehall’s appetite for data.

Any attempt to reduce the size of the numbers of non-academic staff to fund student grants will require Whitehall to terminate its surveillance and data culture. In its place the state would have to focus on what information it needs which really is vital; what is necessary to ensure integrity of the university system which does not cost a lot of money (tip good external examiners) and look at how effective surveillance can be undertaken by non-state mechanisms (tip cheap FOI access to newspapers and private compilers of information).

Foreign students

The second major way of increasing funding for maintenance grants is to let those universities who can increase foreign students do so. This should not be a laissez-faire policy but an active governnment policy encouraging those universities who have the capacity and international brand recognition to increase the number of foreign students to do so. This should include state support to ease planning and immigration barriers to allow those universities who can to maximise their ability to bring foreign students into the country.

Unlike British industry British higher education still punches above its weight with 30 of the top 200 universities being based here. With the rise of the BRICs there is an enormous demand for education. Britain has the opportunity to capture an increasingly large percentage of the global market share of foreign students. The Coalition should be pressing the universities to maximise that share to bring talented students to our shores and thereby also helping to cross-subsidise our home students.

Universities who really geared up for the global market could significantly increase their size generating very large revenues which could be ploughed back into facilities and domestic student grants.

However, for foreign fees to really subsidise British students the Party needs to tackle the Conservatives approach to heavy handed immigration control. Currently getting entirely legitimate foreign students with a British University unconditional offer into the UK is becoming a weary paper chase which is likely to get a lot worse.  Government proposals intend to increase the weight of the paperchase as well as remove the right of successful students to work here for two years after graduation. This latter proposal is particularly damaging. First, UK PLC can draw in talented foreigners with the language and cultural skills British students have not got adding a vital component to our international capacity for doing overseas business. Second, the two year visa provides a significant additional incentive for foreign students to come to the UK.

The Party should focus on grants not fees and the means to provide students from poorer homes with decent grants. It should remember we are in government not opposition. We may have had a reverse over fees but being in government we have now the means to turn the politics round. Should the Party deliver a substantial maintanance grant programme into the new system of university finance it would be clearly a Liberal Democrat policy which would immediately put money into hundreds of thousands of student pockets. The Party should push the Coalition to focus on over the top university bureaucracy and encourage the universities to maximise foreign fee income.

Professor Alan Riley is at City University, London, and Research Fellow at Respublica.

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  • Alan,

    Could you explain where this ‘major consultancy’ got their data from? Because the figures for the numbers of people enrolled in HE and working in the sector are available to the public from HESA, and can be found on the front page of their website, at, and in more detail here:

    The data from HESA do not look like those you are reporting. A source for your data would be useful.

    It would also be useful if you could give an idea of the following:

    – what you think ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ staff means
    – the roles that ‘non-academic’ staff do
    – why you think there are too many of them

    My experience of working with non-academic staff at universities is that as well as them being the people who help you with your staffing and making sure you get paid, they’re also the people who give careers advice to your students, the ones who run your bars and canteens, the ones who clean your offices and loos, the ones who run your chaplaincy and sports services, the ones who engage with your communities (an important part of the work of City University), and do all of the other things that are necessary to keep not just a very large business running but to provide all of the very many necessary services going that students also expect to receive as part of the fees that they pay. Universities are now expected to have a wider community role than as educational institutions.

    Unless you can enlighten us as to where these ‘non-academic’ employees are failing to contribute and how they can be cut, this piece looks dangerously like some kind of peculiar argument that all non-academic staff are a burden on institutions who exist solely to create red tape. There may be waste going around; your piece does not make that case at all.

  • Quick point on the red tape trope:

    I work in a very productive institute that is part of a university. That ratio of academic/non-academic staff seems consistent with that described above. These non-academic staff manage IT, ordering, maintenance, admin, even catering and all the other stuff that lets us researchers do research without wasting time faffing around. Without them our productivity would drop hugely.

    Perhaps in some places there are a surfeit of administrators, but not here.

    Also this:

    It should be recognised that the reason for this over-staffing in British universities is by no means just the fault of those institutions. While there may have been a significant degree of bureaucratic empire building and costly ‘make work’ practices this top heavy bureaucratic approach to higher education has been encouraged and facilitated by the state, Endless missives from Whitehall, myriad targets, surveillance systems and special programmes have created an army of non-academic staff to feed Whitehall’s appetite for data.

    Any attempt to reduce the size of the numbers of non-academic staff to fund student grants will require Whitehall to terminate its surveillance and data culture. In its place the state would have to focus on what information it needs which really is vital; what is necessary to ensure integrity of the university system which does not cost a lot of money (tip good external examiners) and look at how effective surveillance can be undertaken by non-state mechanisms (tip cheap FOI access to newspapers and private compilers of information).

    requires references because it doesn’t tally with my experience.

  • Interesting idea, but would the funds come from the universities or from government? if direct from unis, this might cause a market instability, whereby the successful unis with lots of overseas students could afford bigger maintenance grants, thereby becoming even more successful while other unis go to the wall.

    So, better from government and hence spread evenly?

    We do, desperately, need an issue to show a bit of commitment to young people. if, that is, our leadership wants to show that, and hasn’t quietly been in favour of £9K fees all along.

  • The number of non-academic staff employed on site is a fairly pointless statistic without context.

    If the UK university employs 20 cleaners for a total spend on £300k per year and the US university subcontracts cleaning out for £300k per year then the cleaning still gets done, at the same cost, but one can say they have a “better” ratio of academic to non-academic staff.

  • I read “Liberal Democrats should not give up the battleground of higher education finance” then decided to skip the rest. No one’s listening to the Lib Dems anymore and people do not trust them. I hope you enjoy your 30 pieces of silver,. I used to vote for you but now just can’t wait for your eventual demise, and make no mistake, this will happen.

  • Man on the Bus 17th Dec '10 - 1:59pm

    “It is still unfair that one young man goes to Burger King to earn £6/hour and then pays tax so that another young man can go to Sheffield University and get a grant.”

    Absolutely. Why should people who don’t go to university pay for higher education?

    Also, why should people without children pay for schools? And why can’t people with private health insurance opt out of the NHS? And why can’t people with private pensions opt out of the state pension? And why should people who never go abroad pay for foreign aid?

    That’s what I should like to know.

  • I am always amazed about the ratio between admin staff and academics – especially seeing the large amount of time I, as a research active academic, have to spend on the simplest admin tasks, it is very difficult to imagine….

    However, if some of the expensive and time-consuming government-driven exercises could be stopped – such as the QAA and the REF, that would surely save everybody a good deal of time, aggravation, useless bureaucracy and money.

    However, I doubt very much that the saved money would be anywhere near enough for the plan suggested here.

    Would be interesting do do a proper costing along those lines.

  • Man on the Bus 17th Dec '10 - 4:15pm

    I still can’t understand why people who can’t read should have to subsidise the elite who use public libraries, though.

  • There are two major sources of potential funding for such grants. University red tape and foreign student fees.

    If you really can cut costs by deregulating universities, would that not produce lower tuition fees in any event?

  • Man oh the Bus, can you answer any of your own rhetorical questions?

    For example, why can’t people with private pensions opt out of the state pension? Is it because people with private pensions tend to be wealthier than those without?

    Or can you at least answer the original question: why should non-graduates subsidise graduates? Presumably your answer would not be that non-graduates are better off than graduates.

  • JACK DUCKWORTH 17th Dec '10 - 5:14pm

    FAO All founder members of the SDP, SDLP and the Liberal Democrats.

    I joined at the begining of this journey because i was sick and tired of left and right wing politics. I felt that there was room for both side in poitics ie business interests and socialism and I like to avoid extremes of politics which appear to cause most problems and damage as they do with many other aspects of life.

    Although I thought that the Coalition Government was a good solution to the financial situation that the UK had become embroiled in. This was caused by International financial weaknesses and not all the fault of the Labour Government. The constant blame game annoys me and shows politics in its worst light. ie “Yaboo” stuff. The present cuts on all matter of things and the 14% increase in VAT will do untold damage and smacks of “pure” (sic) toryism.

    Despite my comments i will have to remain with the Lib Dems because so far no other potical party offers any other more attractive offers.

    Sincerely Jack Duckworth former Councillor at County and District Levels

  • Man on the Bus 17th Dec '10 - 5:51pm


    There is a clue for you in those rhetorical questions…

    Man on

  • If you want lecturers spending time chasing absent students, ordering IT equipment, cleaning classrooms, running the payroll system, sweeping snow off carparks, fixing boilers, installing electronic whiteboards, processing applications and spending a lot of time not teaching, then by all means go ahead and cut non academic staff.

  • Liberal Democrats should not give up the battleground of higher education finance just yet.
    What battleground? Lib Dems promised to end University tuition fees. My daughter who had just turned 18 and was preparing for Uni, like so many other young people voted for them solely on the basis of that one promise.
    The only reason we have this ConDem government is because of these kids voting for the Lib Dems.

    There is no battleground as there is no ConDem government only a Tory government who intend to privitise our schools, our NHS and our public services. Their end goal is turn this country into a corporate led plutocracy where their profits rise as our standard of living declines.

    Nick Clegg in his effort to finally be on the inside looking out for a change has guarenteed that at the next elections, in fact all elections for at least the next twenty years this country will have only two parties and the BBC’s SwingOmeter will show only three colours. Red, Blue and Grey for the independants. Yellow will be forgotten, and the Liberal Democrats will be nothing more than a footnote in history.
    Well done Clegg, Kings puppet for a day, fool for a lifetime. The man who killed the Liberal Democrat Party.

    @ Mr Duckworth. Labour can be blamed solely for the financial crisis in this country. Well I say Labour but obviously I mean Gordon Brown. He allowed the Bank of England to keep interest rates artificially low. He gave the BoE greater powers to enable them to do this more effectivly without being answerable to Parliament. And so the BoE lent to the banks and the banks lent to everybody and the party pretended that all of this inflation of the countries money supply and the housing bubble was in fact an economic miracle that put an end to boom and bust. In fact it was hyper inflation (and we’re just making it worse printing more of it now).

    The derivatives bubble in the states may have been what triggered trouble here, and peoples fear that the banks were holding a lot of bad apples. But the reality was that ANYONE with eyes could see what was coming from 2005 when the American housing bubble burst. An average house in this country has always cost around 3-3.5x of an average income, and don’t believe the lie that because there are more people living here demand is higher and so prices rise. Remember before Thatcher when most people rented? What was the average house price compared to salery? Ah, but then prices shot up… Then down and averaged out at????? 3.5x because that is their current value. And when this current correction is finally over thats what they will cost again. 6x the average annual salery on a 100% mortgage anyone who was stupid enough to buy like that DESERVES to lose their home. It’s the most important financial decision you will ever make in your life. You’d think they’s do a little research first.

    When the bubble burst in America I sold my house, emptied my ISA and put every penny I owned into gold bullion. everyone thought I was mental for putting all of my eggs in one basket. When I bought mine it was about £230 per ounce. Today it’s knocking around £900 an ounce. It’s not profit, it’s wealth protection. As your money is buying you less and less each day mine is maintaining it’s purchasing power. Gold is not in a bubble neither is silver, wheat, iron, rice, etc. Sterling is just worth less and will continue to lose value until we stop printing it at this ridiculous rate. Interest rates have to increase or this country is finished.

    If I could see what was about to happen just from watching News 24 and having a little knowledge of history you can bet your arse Brown knew as did everyone of the Corporate lobbyists that had been controlling his party from the beggining in fact they were banking on it so that they could buy up this countries assetts for pennies on the pound.

    What did Gordon do with OUR gold again?????

  • Chris @ 11:37am

    Interesting that you use HESA data – thank you for the alternative source. If you follow those links, you’ll see that HESA give the number of academic staff to be 179,040, and non-academic staff to be 203,720 in 2008/09. So although the ratios are different to those reported in the article, its not by much and even HESA are saying that there are more non-academic staff than academic staff, which, according to the article, is not true across the EHEA.

    So even the links you offer don’t change the thrust of the argument.

    By the way, HESA are reporting part time and full time staff as being the same thing. So someone who does one lecture course of 10 lectures a year, counts the same as a full time research fellow.

    Anthony @ 7:24pm

    I think if you read the article, the author isn’t suggesting cutting _all_ non-academic staff, but firstly trying to understand why universities in other countries get by with far fewer. Its not a question of “do we need our non-academics?” but “do we need _all_ of them?”

    And thats a very interesting question.

  • Why are we still delivering a university education on site? Yes a lot of the sciences, technologies and engineering need to be taught on site; however a whole raft of humanities and arts subjects could be delivered via distance learning, with modern technology and a summer school. What is the environmental and economic cost of the traditional uni model?

  • @Jack, Why SDLP? the Social Democratic & Labour Party, is a Northern Irish nationalist party.

  • @James non-academics free up time for teachers to teach, the increase in numbers was to do exactly that. There’s really not much fat to be cut from non-academics, I work as a non-academic, we’ve had cuts and our service has been reduced, lecturers now complain about our response times but with less numbers that’s an inevitable side effect.

    Lecturers and teachers want to get on with the academic side of their job, they don’t want to be filling in forms to claim funding or chasing absent students, there’s no much near as much fat to be cut as some would have you believe, we’ve been audited by a private company on this, they couldn’t find enough areas to cut without greatly hampering the service.

  • The University bureaucracy is definitely a problem. Having worked in both the US and the UK in top Universities, I can vouch for the plain fact that the British Universities are extremely bureaucratic. The American Universities are essentially like communities of scholars and the non-academic staff have the function of supporting the academics. The British Universities, on the other hand, regard themselves as corporations, with the academics treated as employees working for them. The corporate culture resembles the American car companies, which grows and grows at the cost of the bread and butter business. While the size of the corporate services has grown, the contribution they make to the Universities’ mission has correspondingly reduced. The services generate their own red tape, often flamed the endless stream of Government policies that get shoved down. Instead of supporting academics, they in fact shove the work off to the academics and increase their workload through red tape. Most academics are frustrated with the way things are going. It is time to figure out how to put a stop to this.

  • @Anthony

    non-academics free up time for teachers to teach

    I am sure they do. This is not a rant about non-academic staff, but rather about bureaucracy. To give one example, consider admissions. When I went to study for PhD in the US in the 80’s, every single one of my offer letters came from departments, despite the fact that they were all committing considerable sums of money for assistantships. In contrast, offer letters for even places on undergraduate programmes in the UK have to be issued by an Admissions Office. The Admissions Office receives applications and then sends them off to departments for making decisions. After the departments do all the hard work of making a decision, all the stuff is sent back to Admissions, who then supposedly double check everything and then send offer letters to applicants. The value added by Admissions Offices is pretty negligible. They are pure red tape. Pretty often, they are an unwanted obstacle between the departments and the applicants, hindering communication, visibility and good will.

    That is one example. Similarly, Examinations Offices and Academic Offices intervene between academic departments and the students. The Careers Centres and the Alumni Offices intervene between the academic departments and their graduates. The HR departments intervene between departments and the staff recruits. Purchasing departments intervene between departments and the suppliers. The Press Offices intervene between the academics and the Press. So on and on. In all cases, the academic departments are never trusted to make decisions and act on behalf of the Universities. Only, the Corporate Services are entitled to do so. Even if the decisions are really made by academics, the Corporates have to watch over them and make sure that they do it right. Now, it would be tolerable if they limit themselves to supporting the work of the academics. But they sit there and dream up of all kinds of rules and regulations which the academics have to then follow. And, the support they provide is in many cases inadequate or substandard. (Sorry if I offend people by saying that.) The academics often have to pull their hair out to set things right. In many cases, they can set them right because the damage is done. If the academics suggest improvements, they fall on tin ears.

    Meanwhile, the Corporates are all the time trying to grow their empires. They want to take over whatever few administrative staff the academic departments control. Parallel lines of management hierarchy are created that bypass the academics. The departmental admin staff (let alone academic staff) have now begun to complain that they have to face so much red tape that they are unable to do the jobs they are hired to do. Some of them are now leaving because they are so dissatisfied with the way things are going.

    A few months ago, Brian Leiter of University of Chicago wrote a column on his blog, criticising the cuts being made in King’s College, London in some of its world-famous Humanities departments. He points out the obscenity of the increases in administrative costs at King’s as follows:

    According to the College’s own accounts, administrative costs rose to £33.5 million in 2009 from £28.5 million the year before – a rise of 17.5 per cent and more than twice as fast as the rise in cost of academic departments. In 2003, administration cost £16.5 million – making a 103 per cent rise over the six years.

    To give a comparison, King’s is now proposing to decimate the Humanities to save £2.4 million. This will claw back less than half of the increase in administrative expenses for 2009 alone.

    I rest my case.

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