Features

British universities are whipping up a mad boom that’s bound to go bust

Many are building vast glass palaces to take on more and more students

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

Town halls and unringfenced government departments are feeling the pinch, but one corner of British public life is conspicuously flush. Visit almost any university in the land and you will find a small city bursting with Portakabins, scaffolding and cranes. If you dare to raise your eyes from the mud puddles, you will see vast hoardings displaying images of glass palaces.

Higher education is in the throes of its biggest building boom since the 1960s. Whether it is wise or not, whether the financial and academic calculations add up, are questions rarely asked, so loud is the self-congratulation of those pioneering the expansion.

University College London recently clinched what has been described as the biggest loan in British university history (from the European Investment Bank, as it happens) to help fund a new campus in east London. Imperial College, King’s and University of the Arts London are well into building mode, while four in five universities outside the capital are reported to have plans to increase capital spending. The University of Swansea has just opened a smart new riverside campus at a cost of almost half a billion pounds. Pretty much everyone involved with higher education is loving it. There is nothing like a big construction project to get the juices flowing.

But consider who is not running with the herd. Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick and Manchester have no plans for increased intake. Would not many more people benefit from an Oxbridge education? Perhaps. But we are talking about universities, where individual merit and institutional standards are presumably worth something. Some universities have already reduced entrance requirements and it is hard to see how others can increase admissions without lowering standards.


Then there are the finances. The rise in tuition fees to a maximum £9,000 a year for UK and EU students, which every institution promptly imposed, provided more funds. When this is coupled with the flexibility to admit as many students as they like, from wherever they like, to whatever courses they like, the sums can be made to add up. But most universities have also taken out loans, largely on the promise of fee, endowment and research income for a generation or more to come. What if interest rates rise? What if the projected increase in student numbers is not realised? What if the government calls time on current student-loan arrangements? With a surfeit of graduates and many graduate jobs paying less, the latest estimates suggest almost half of student loans will not be repaid. The whole model looks shaky at best.

The favoured solution is to increase the proportion of overseas students, who pay higher, often much higher, fees. The result, where at some universities one in three undergraduates and half of postgraduates come from outside the EU, is hailed as glorious evidence that the UK is at the forefront of educational globalisation. But the argument assumes that growth is of itself good. More students means more fees, but it also brings a need for more teachers, more facilities, more accommodation. So unless quality is sacrificed, the chase for recruits, the fundraising and mortgaging must go on and on.

Which is where the further risks begin. How soon will it be before overseas students baulk at subsidising the rest and ask what happened to the uniquely British university experience? Or aspiring UK students start to resent the apparent preference given to high payers from abroad? How long before some courses are run with few, or no, UK students? Whose future elite will we, should we, be educating?

What about grade inflation in establishments keen to demonstrate their competitive edge? Trophy buildings paid for by dodgy donations? Vice-chancellors and others swanning around Asia, banging the drum for their universities and awarding themselves huge pay rises because they are now marketing executives as much as academics?

One day, this bubble has to burst. Whether it will be because the demand from overseas declines, or because more UK students reject a degree as not worth the money, because too many loans remain unpaid, or because overambitious construction projects go wrong, the dangers are apparent.

Much of UK higher education seems in thrall to the idea that bigger is better. It is worth pondering, though, what will happen to all those gleaming palaces when it turns out, as it surely must, that excellence and reputation can be spread too thin.

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  • Jack_H

    The bubble is bursting,higher education is no longer a guarentee of higher pay or better work,many degrees are all but useless with vocational training making a comeback.

    • Andrew Cole

      But in Lincoln the bubble is flying. University is big business because students rent. F the locals and the house prices in Lincoln. F the families that used to live in these areas. You cannot complain about the students noise or their habits because they are the golden ticket for the council and their circle of friends in the “investors in Lincoln” group.

      The people in that group are the Landowners, the employers the developers and of course the council so that everybody makes as much money as possible for each other with minimal interference without a thought to being honest or moral.

      In Lincoln the University is their baby and it is F the locals. The usual elite that dismiss the plebs as being wrong.

    • Mr B J Mann

      Higher education has never really been a guarantee of higher pay or better work, certainly since the big expansions into the glass and concrete “unis”, and since.

      Even today, when the government and unis trumpet the increase in lifetime earnings supposedly delivered by a degree, they can only know what the lifetime earnings of people retiring now were.

      But you are talking about lawyers and consultants and directors and the like retiring in their 60s, 70s, 80s, even.

      In other words they are promising the 50% of kids going to former polys and colleges, who would have struggled with O levels, never mind A Levels of half a century ago, the same kind of “graduate” income that the 2% to 8% of the population who went to Oxbridge and Russel group unis in the 60s and 50s and even earlier, earned!

      But the reason most of those retirees are retiring as highly paid consultants or lawyers, or stockbrokers, or captains of industry, or whatever, is the same reason they went to Oxbridge in the 50s:

      Not because they were graduate material, never mind graduates:

      But because daddy was a highly paid consultant or lawyer, or stockbroker, or captain of industry, or had good contacts or whatever!!!

  • zanzamander

    Citadels of antisemitic Islamist fascist socialism.

    • right1_left1

      So if I were to say
      (1) Israel used tactics of terror when it invaded Gaza or shelled Lebanon or even tried to sink the USA reconnaissance ship Liberty
      or
      (2)The founding of the state of Israel amounted to ethnic cleansing including by the way killing British diplomats and soldiers and arab villagers
      then
      Am I exhibiting antisemitism or stating facts ?

      • Fasdunkle

        Even if that was all true why is Israel singled out? There are now more Arabs in the area of Israel now than at any previous time in history – compare that to, say, the number of Hindus now in Pakistan (another state created in 1948)

        • jeremy Morfey

          Arab is a race and a Hindu is a religion. There was a greater proportion of Hindus in the Beatles than there were in Pakistan.

        • right1_left1

          It is all true
          Ethnic cleansing is not very nice.

          As to the blindness of lefty student establishments to the dangers of Islam I havent got a clue.
          Misplaced idealism and naivete I guess.

          I dont really know why the multi culti merchants never mention the failures clearly manifest in India either.
          They are a funny lot which wouldn’t matter much if their viewpoint was not ruining the UK !

      • Ordinary Man

        What you are actually doing is citing facts selectively and harnessing them to an opinion.

        • right1_left1

          What you are actually doing is citing facts selectively and harnessing them to an opinion.
          I dont think so.
          What I did do was state facts and then asked how they should be interpreted.

          Using your response as a model ALL political argument can be challenged.
          In fact it is the modus operandi of BBC coverage of political events.

  • right1_left1

    What can be said for certain is this: since the late 1950’s to the present day there has been a direct correlation between increases in spending on tertiary education and national economic decline when viewed in international terms.

    As for primary/secondary educational expenditutre that must rise due to lunatic immigration policiies.

    • jeremy Morfey

      Could there also be a direct correlation between decreases in spending on further education, including vocational and skills training and apprenticeships, and national economic decline for the simple reason that a limited education budget is being diverted?

  • Liberty

    Expansion is not to accommodate UK students, it is to increase capacity for overseas students. UK students make a loss that can only be made up with foreigners on full fees. It is ridiculously difficult for Brits to get places on desireable course such as nursing, medicine, computer science or maths because demand is so great from overseas. The foreign governments, rich, etc imagine that they are getting a dollop of UK liberal values but in truth, they are getting a dollop of the institutionalised political correctness, socialist lecturers, lunatic NUS politics and rubbing shoulders with people from all over the world. The only bit of the UK they get is the English language, weather and an admittedly better education than at home.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      450,000 overseas students. Knowledge is our greatest export.

      • Tamerlane

        We’re not exporting it twit.

        • Father Todd Unctious

          Gosh. Not only are you bewlidered by history , geography and maths , you are all at sea with economics too.
          If we sell a homegrown product or service to a foreigner, it is an export. They do not have to be abroad to consume it. What a wally you are . Plus a useless shill, as you give away too much if what you are privy to.

          • Tamerlane

            Exports leave the country, twist all you like, you’re wrong. Again. Twit.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Our biggest export is insurance. When does that “leave the country” you idiot?

          • Tamerlane

            It’s not an export. Twit.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            It is. Numpty. It earns us foreign currency. Crikey you are even rhicker than your posts betray.

          • Tamerlane

            Scweam and scweam all you like. Our biggest export is cars. You’re wrong. Again. Twit.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            That is very funny. But more a serious concern that you are so badly informed. Cars! Hilarious.

  • Teacher

    When my son attended prep school his form room was a damp old temporary building which had been gently decaying for decades. We didn’t care much as he was rubbing shoulders with the sons of PLU’s and the standards of teaching and discipline were rocket high. He was very happy in his shed!

    Our girlie had fancier buildings though we had to smile when the empire building headmistress overreached herself, bust the bank constructing an Olympic sized swimming pool and had to march.

    Their state grammars were housed in old buildings yet seemed to turn out clever, high achieving youngsters.

    We thought there might well be some connection between the state of the buildings and the standard of education. An inverse connection: the worse the classroom, the higher the results.

    They both attended universities in cathedral cities and it was at these that we first saw the buildings mania take hold. It was clearly a form of revenue raising to ramp up home and foreign fees. It wasn’t too difficult to see where the money going either, and it wasn’t on the paying customer! My daughter had six hours’ worth of tuition a week in her second year and the seminars were given by pocket-money postgrads. The Chancellor’s salary was over £400,000 a year. Kerching! And the PM says the Nigerians and Kenyan are corrupt.

    • Andrew Cole

      Students are gold dust these days. There is money to be made and it isn’t from the education of them it is from rentals. Look at this beast that appeared from nowhere in Lincoln. Yet another student block to add to all the others that have taken over a huge section of the centre of the city:

      http://thelincolnite.co.uk/2015/09/iconic-lincoln-student-flats-complete-with-cafe-and-offices-to-come/

      • Teacher

        Thank you for the sight of this most ghastly building constructed in the holier-than-thou leftist, modernist, tin-can clad style – complete with nasty carpet as we can see from the interior shots. The poor parents will be paying upward of six grand a year for their children to live like drunken peasants in the awful edifice. As you say, the real money’s in the accommodation.

        Though why the government and the chancellors think that middle class people are going to pay through the nose for much of the foreseeable future for their children to be neglected, corrupted and to associate with the offspring of the dregs of the world, I don’t know. I predict that the MC will find an acceptable alternative. I certainly wouldn’t let mine go now except to a very few, well chosen establishments.

  • Andrew Cole

    This has been happening for over a decade in Lincoln with the Council’s baby the University. The terraced area next to the University has changed from young families to Students but if you mention the noise or filth or broken glass or sick all over the pavements then you are called a liar.

    Try to get planning in Lincoln and you go through the usual process……….while seeing all these new luxury halls of residence flying up within weeks of them being thought of. All in prime positions in the centre of the city.

    The university grows larger year on year and more buildings are going up all the time.

    The Council and “business leaders” warble on about the money all the students bring to the economy yet students across the country are always saying they are broke.

    Its the usual boys club with the developers, landowners and the Council all having directorships on the “Investors in Lincoln” group. It is all a conflict of interest because everyone involved are all on the same business panels that champion upcoming projects. It is the same countrywide where these panels have the usual suspects. An outside developer pretending to be Local, The Co-op who own masses of Land, The Council of that area who of course own masses of Land, The Church who own masses of Land.

    Funny Cameron talking about corruption in other countries while our own country is full of operations like this where Councils approve projects for their mates who then sit on boards to approve other projects and all the time these “business champions of Lincoln” employ no local construction workers. The Poles that arrive aren’t even living in Lincoln and are bussed in from other areas and moved from project to project as each back scratch opens up a new avenue.

    The company that builds all these projects sets up a satellite company in a teeny tiny office in Lincoln so they can say they are local when in fact that company makes no profit, has no cashflow and the reality is that these are not local construction businesses, they are external to this area pretending to be Lincoln based and the money does not then benefit Lincoln. This company has “satellites” all over Britain. All make no money, all have no cashflow and the money paid by Councils to that “local company” gets shifted off through the umbrella companies to shareholders in the Middle East and other areas.

    These pro business groups like “Investors in Lincoln” have directors that are also directors of multiple business including adult training, employment agencies and yes you guessed it even the University itself.

    So the developers know they can get the planning easily, they know the money from government for the University will flow freely, they know they can get the land from their mates, they keep all the money in the circle of friends and it continues by paying another in the circle to provide the workforce.

    All this adult education money that governments provide is also steered into companies run by people also in the circle. If you delved deeper into the directorships held by the “investors in Lincoln” group you would no doubt find more and more “conflicts” which of course is not corruption at all. It is just the way things have always worked and always will no matter how much we hear about transparency. Some of those “investors in Lincoln” have directorships in many many companies that all benefit each other from government money. All legal of course.

    Transparency means nothing. They used to hide this sort of thing but these days they don’t even bother. These people have no fear of transparency.

    • Teacher

      You should see Brunel. Brunel himself will be turning in his grave.

    • fenlandfox

      As a near local I can vouch for all you have stated.last time I was in the city I also noticed some of the formally commercial offices now being rented out to the university,that itself must be costing the taxpayers a fortune.

      • Andrew Cole

        The old job centre on danesgate is………student accomodation. All those offices around the Brayford pool………..student accomodation. Why can’t locals have something built in the city. I’m sure many would love an apartment with a view over the Brayford pool….Sorry I mean the Marina.

    • njt55

      Similar to Coventry where we have two universities. The council has decided that Coventry City Centre will be focused on student accommodation and “student life”. High rises going up for the former, franchise restaurants for the latter. Coventry University is building like mad – not pretty either.

      • Aberrant_Apostrophe

        It used to be the Lanchester Poly when I lived in Coventry, many Moons ago. And Warwick University seems to have added half a dozen new buildings whenever I go back to see my relatives.

  • John

    Sorry for stating the obvious. It isn’t the building , but what goes on inside it.
    Peace and love !

  • rtj1211

    Well, I hope they hire competent project managers to ensure that they don’t build very expensive buildings which will fall to bits within 20 years. I’ve seen a few disgraceful buildings put up in Russell Group Universities which weren’t worth one third of what they cost and the contractors should have been sued into the next century for the shoddiness of their work.

    • Aberrant_Apostrophe

      Are you thinking of Leicester University, where large concrete facing slabs kept falling off about 40 years ago?

    • nancoise

      I know the Hill colleges of Durham a bit and some of them look not only ugly but ill-kempt, and seem to be in the first stages of falling to bits. And students are angry to be charged a fortune to live in them.

  • All this education – just so thousands of young people can serve happy meals at Macdonalds!

    • Sean L

      My friend’s daughter has a degree in Criminology from Kingston University and works in a betting shop – same difference…

  • Sue Smith

    Somebody wrote this on “Spiked” a couple of days ago and I’ve cut and paste for you!!

    “The West is engaged in exactly the same process of deculturation and INTELLECTUAL HOOLIGANISM as the Islamic barbarians. A war against meaning, order and knowledge. The vandalism in academia. The war on families and tradition. The recruitment of banks and big business in the dismantling of civil society (Zuckerberg is looking more and more like Goebbels). All in all, a comprehensive attempt to eliminate any sign of spontaneous humanity and replace it with a fanatical vision of perfection. ISIS uses violence and the West uses the mental cruelty of PC, otherwise there is no major conceptual difference.”

    • Mandrake

      No surprises here. All part of the modern culture wars waged by the extreme Left.

      And seeing you are off piste let me join you by adding that the French Marxist philosopher Jacques Derrida developed the concept of deconstruction, which questioned the Western philosophical tradition and in fact the the whole of Western culture and its underpinnings. Derrida’s aim was to politicize the universities and to tear down the core tenets of Western culture, all in accordance with his Marxist belief system of Hegelian dialectics.

      The revolutionaries of the ’60’s, Derrida’s cultural Marxist disciples, eventually captured the education system, and then much of the MSM. They have succeeded in capturing the language and hence control thought. They now control the zeitgeist.

      The net result of this is that the Left, by having captured the schools and universities and MSM, has succeeded in banishing rigorous intellectual debate and has in effect ushered in Orwellian Newspeak – i.e. a goal of cultural Marxism – the contemporary euphemism for which is PC speech. This is the death of freedom of speech by a thousand cuts.

      The Left also wishes to destroy historical fact in order to to cast the nation’s populace adrift from its historical content and roots and replace them by a new “narrative”, as per Michel Foucault’s New Historicism theory. And if the citizens of a country/the West are sufficiently estranged
      from their historical and cultural underpinnings it’s then easier to
      disenfranchise the populace and to substitute Modernist “narratives” and
      group-think.

      An example of this is the charming phrase “old dead white men”.

      • Sue Smith

        I didn’t think I was “off piste”.

        All of the things you mention are anathema to the Enlightenment; we are in the new intellectual Dark Ages. Except, there was no real Dark Age – that’s a myth. But our modern era more than qualifies for that appellation.

        • Mandrake

          Way off-piste in the context of the article. But apart from that, we are in furious agreement, with one rider: it is not the West, but the hard Left.

          • Sue Smith

            The hard Left in the West. Yes. Those self-loathing types.

          • Mandrake

            Sure. And the safe spaces and trigger words etc on many campuses evidence the battle between John Stuart Mill’s concept of freedom of speech (i.e. you can test opposing ideas, and mock, expose and refute them, but not use the law to asphyxiate debate, because in the silence that follows a dreadful conformism would set in – aka PC speech) and the American legal philosopher Joel Feinburg’s “freedom from offense principle” – where the law should stop freedom of speech that offends/is likely to offend (the latter now seemingly being part of Australian case law on issues of race).

          • Sue Smith
  • Philip David

    Buildings in the UK are the very least of it, my university has spent many millions building a new campus in Malaysia. It has been open a year, currently has no students and (rumour has it) a rat infestation… The site is located on a business park with other UK universities so presumably even if they could get any students they will compete each other into the ground. Meanwhile I will be coming away in July with some of the largest student debt in the developed world.

    • rjbh

      should have lived in Scotland.

    • CalUKGR

      Many British Universities are busy lending their ‘brand’ to overseas franchises sporting their name. I see this all the time in my line of work. They’re all getting in on the act, from Hong Kong to Bangkok and back again. I’d love to know where all these cash-strapped UK universities are getting the hard cash to expand so aggressively around the world..?

  • Roger Hudson

    Since I went to University (1969) student numbers have basically tripled, are they producing three times as many scientists or engineers? I don’t think so. The real wealth of British society needs certain specialists and not a lot of PPE ( posh boys equivalent of media studies).

    • This is a prime example of a “things were better in my young day” post.

      • logdon

        Explain.

        • This is a prime example of someone unable to understand something obvious.

          • Mr B J Mann

            Thank you for recognising and admitting that you are a prime example of someone unable to understand something obvious, 0nanist Wazzock.

            A you finally realised, the post you originally thought was a “prime example of a “things were better in my young day” post” consisted of:

            a) A statement of the change in student numbers between 1969 and now.

            And!

            b) A question as to the numbers of scientists or engineers being produced today and an opinion thereonm

            And:

            c) An opinion on the kinds of graduates we need.

            So no comment whatsoever from the poster as to whether he thought things were better in his young day.

            You aren’t usually this self aware you little 0nanis W!nker!

      • John

        It’s actually a prime example of the unvarnished truth (apologies for not providing a Trigger Warning or Safe Space – and I anticipate being No Platformed any second now)

        • Just because you want something to be true that doesn’t mean it is.

          • John

            So which part of Roger Hudson’s post do you regard as untrue ?

          • The lack of actual information and the inclusion of innuendo.

          • John

            So if he provided hard figures you would agree with him ? Then again the lack of figures / other evidence doesn’t actually make something untrue.

          • “So if he provided hard figures you would agree with him ?” That obviously depends on the figures. His innuendo is that universities are not producing the correct mix of skills and to prove that he would have to know what business wants and compare that to what universities produce.

            His use of “media studies” and worse still “posh boys” to hide his lack of substance is such a cliché.

            “Then again the lack of figures / other evidence doesn’t actually make something untrue.” No but it does make it an unfounded opinion.

  • marvin

    Quantity does not make for quality! The Universities are attracting a large number of people – some because they believe that their employment situation in the UK will change – it will not, there are literally thousands of graduates in mis-placed employment or unemployed in the UK – there are greater numbers of overseas graduates than ever before because that is where the money is.

  • rjbh

    It will only end in tears.. too many wanna be chiefs .. not enough Indians…a single degree is now pointless.. depends how much debt you can handle.

  • James McClellan

    Quite right.

  • Bonkim

    To attract overseas students and make money. Are there enough qualified teachers in the system?

  • mikewaller

    If what our universities teach is of such value why are we sharing it with the young of our global competitors? In times past, if a king acquired a skilful smith, it was said he was likely to maim one of the smiths legs and imprison him on an island so that rivals could not utilise his skills. This suggests to me that either we are the most short-sighted fools in history or that we are knowingly carrying out a con trick of massive proportions. .

  • Norton Folgate

    Many of our newer and expanding universities are doing groundbreaking work in unconventional academic disciplines. For example, as the Dalston Mercury reports, the prestigious University of Dalston is leading the field in Alternative Feminist Studies. It is an inspiring read: http://bit.ly/1rLuFmT

    • This is one of the best bits of trolling I’ve seen in quite a while.

    • Sean L

      Norton Folgate is in Shoreditch mate, at the other end of KIngsland Road 2 miles from Dalston.

  • Marcus

    Some great points made in the article (and comments), but in a way I don’t blame the unis. They have to survive amidst a cataclysmic 80% cut in public funding. Ten percent would have been a major operational headache. Eighty percent is tantamount to saying “you’re on your own, you have to take most of the brunt of these unwanted changes – now get on with it.” Yet another huge sign of the pathetic terminal decline this country is in.

    • Mandrake

      Here’s a tip – let them trim by, oh, say 80%, their bloated staff of administrators and counsellors and HR parasites, and cut the salaries of the Deans/Chancellors etc.

      • 14thcolony

        Brilliantly stated. The amount of worthless bureaucracy, coupled with the outlandish pay for Vice-Chancellors is mind boggling.

  • Bardirect

    most colleges went straight to charging the £9,000 maximum irrespective of the quality of teaching, regardless of subject and no account taken of the lectures and tutorials cancelled due to “unavailability” of staff. It’s only a matter of time before Slater & Gordon find a lucrative income stream of claimants who got ripped off.

  • SeaNote

    Amazon is shutting down big box retail. Who either needs or can afford the overhead?

  • Chris Bartelt

    From University educated to Universally Edjucayted.

  • TigerUppercrust

    People in glass houses shouldnt throw stones, especially when exhibiting signs of mental illness, as many of these students seem to do.

  • 14thcolony

    What is truly remarkable is that a fair number of these buildings are designed without consulting a single academic. I have seen gorgeous new academic buildings simply not fit for purpose. For example there are shortages of classroom space given current enrolment, whilst faculty were placed in open office environments completely unfit for research or lecture preparation, and with no where to meet with students (who were not allowed access to said offices for ‘security’ reasons). At least a few of UK universities are run by really stupid sociopaths.

  • Joe Arnaud

    Its a a market based response to changes in revenue stream. Research funding is down, general funding is down, funding is on a per student basis. Solution recruit more students. Buildings that ‘wow’ during visiting days or look good in pictures or offer good facilities draw more students in and there for increase and sustain yearly revenue and as such they constitute a sound ‘investment’. Making a university more competitive. Frankly what this is doing to campus is irrelevant compared to the pressure on education. Failing students cost money by removing revenue streams. Yes you can ‘improve’ the quality of education to stop them failing ( which is what the intent of introducing ‘the market’ ) but you can also reduce rigor, which is a whole lot easier and more effective at generating money since it means even students who would fail with the best teaching under a rigorous system can still contribute to cash flow. Market forces do not favor those who choose a harder costlier method over an easier more lucrative one so the pressure to reduce rigor is considerable.

  • Gunther Berghof

    we will end up like communist Cuba, more doctors than patients and many dollares but nothing to buy

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