Phase one of a grand educational experiment is drawing to a close. This summer, the first cohort of students who paid £27,000 for three years of tuition has graduated. Having taken on so much debt, do fruitful careers lie ahead, or a future on the breadline?
Listening to Dame Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bath, it sounds as though the cash crisis on the horizon won’t be felt so much by those who paid for the privilege of learning, as by some of the universities themselves.
“I think there is still quite a lot of dust to settle as the market is created,” says the long-serving vice-chancellor, in black dress, gold brooch and sporting a new Apple Watch – a recent birthday present. Swingeing higher-education cuts coincided with the start of £9,000-a-year student fees, but the universities had to start paying for the lion’s share of building works too.
“It looks as though they have got significant operational surpluses but actually what is underlying that very often is very high levels of debt,” Breakwell says of some universities’ financial accounts.
She thinks it will be a couple of years before the income predictions on which they all based their borrowing are tested. And then: “I think it will be really surprising if, as a consequence of all of these changes, we don’t see some institutions finding themselves in difficulty.”
Not surprisingly, she doesn’t put Bath on the danger list. The university has fared well on her watch, scaling the league tables, more than doubling its student population to 17,000 and tripling its research portfolio since she arrived in 2001.
At this time of year, graduation has been and gone. On the campus up the hill from Bath town centre it is as if the students have cleared out and the cranes have moved in. Overlooking central parkland, a new civil engineering and architecture building is taking shape; a £10m arts building, The Edge, was opened in May.
Bath is already known for its sporting prowess. A training village, built with the help of lottery cash soon after Breakwell arrived, has become a regular base for British Paralympians, as well as hosting Russian athletes and Chinese swimmers in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics.
With an eye on the next stage of investment, the university has launched a £66m fundraising campaign leading up to its 50th anniversary next year, with the first £5m gift coming from biotech alumnus Jonathan Milner. Rattling the tin is a fact of life, Breakwell admits.
“If you don’t like doing it I would recommend that you don’t become a vice-chancellor,” she says, in her office suite whose walls are crammed with books but also some of her own paintings, including four that depict her hands in outline.
Back to the students. Since bigger fees came in, “the thing that students are most concerned about is not the tuition fee, it is actually how they maintain themselves while going through the three- or four-year programme.”
For that reason, she backs George Osborne’s plan to scrap maintenance grants for all but the neediest, in favour of more loans which will increase the amount that students can access, so they are less likely to need part-time jobs while studying. But Breakwell is less encouraging of Labour’s leadership front-runner, Jeremy Corbyn, who wants to scrap tuition fees altogether.
“People at the Institute for Fiscal Studies have said that it would be regressive, haven’t they? And who am I to argue with their financial analysis?”
She rejects the idea that there is any “subsidy” to be redirected from cheaper arts degrees into the science faculties. So if the UK is to fill the skills gap, how universities pay for a greater number of pricey hi-tech courses “is something that really needs to be addressed carefully and quickly”.
Breakwell warns that at the moment, “we are at risk of doing what was done in the Thatcher era where universities will run down their science and engineering facilities and programmes because they cannot afford to run them properly and switching to cheaper disciplines. That frankly would be disastrous.
“There is a real question as to who should pay the bounty for ensuring that we have got the right number of science and engineering graduates.”
She thinks it is too difficult to differentiate fees by subject. One route by which universities will be able to increase tuition fees is if their teaching is rated “excellent” under a newly announced assessment framework that will mirror how research strength is measured and grants are awarded. Breakwell wants to see more detail.
“What I am concerned about is making sure that this can be done with some authority and it’s not going to cost the earth, so we don’t end up diverting money that should be going into teaching in to the assessment of teaching,” she says.
The referendum on European Union membership is also cause of concern if it affects the flow of students overseas or international research collaboration.
“Higher education is global nowadays and mobility is of fundamental importance. The idea that we would somehow be cut off is something we need to understand as a nation.”
Breakwell, 62, grew up outside Birmingham, becoming the first in her family to go to university. Her father was an engineer, her mother she describes as a “serial businesswoman”. Intent on becoming a psychologist, she thought she would go into practice but veered into research early on, when she realised that “I wanted to know stuff that nobody could give me the answers to”. She specialises in social psychology – identity processes, inter-group conflict and risk communication – and is still publishing her work.
As well as being one of the longest-serving vice-chancellors, Breakwell is one of the best paid. In the last reported year, she received £395,000, sharply higher than the £260,000 average for university heads, according to the University and College Union, and double what she was paid a decade ago.
“I’m worth it,” she says, quick as a flash. “I’ve been in the job a long time and you do tend to get increases over time in most jobs.
“Frankly, I don’t think that there is anything I could say that would stop people saying that I earn too much and vice-chancellors earn too much, so I cannot engage in a conversation because I don’t think there is a way through.”
Academia feels like an area of society where women broke through as leaders first – long before the push to make the UK’s boardrooms less “male and pale”. Breakwell insists it is still a very small club, especially among the research-intensive universities.
“There are women vice-chancellors but the number has not massively increased over the last 20 years,” she says. “I think it is really important that we start to look at how women from the start of their academic careers are encouraged to take on leadership roles within universities. We should not be in any way complacent.”
CV - Dame Glynis Breakwell
Brought up in the West Midlands. Educated at Tividale Comprehensive and then Leicester University (BA), Strathclyde University (MSc), Bristol University (PhD) and Oxford University (MA and DSc).
Career so far
Social psychology lecturer at Bradford University for two years from 1976. Joined Surrey University in 1981 as a lecturer, rising to be professor, head of department and in 1994, pro-vice-chancellor. Appointed vice-chancellor of Bath University in 2001.
Lives in a university residence close to Bath’s Royal Crescent. Family home in Surrey she shares with her long-term partner, Colin, who is also a psychologist. They have no children. Relaxes by painting.Reuse content