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Reforms ‘could turn respected universities into zombies’


Greg Hurst

The Times

15 August 2013

Mike Boxall, PA higher education expert, is extensively quoted in an article in The Times on higher education and ‘zombie’ universities.

Mike explains that several well-known research universities, including members of the Russell Group, were likely to fall into a downward spiral. He goes on to say that there is no mechanism to enforce the winding up of a redbrick university created by charter and that these would instead gradually close courses and departments. Staff would also become redundant as incomes from research and teaching undergraduates fell.

The article goes on to explains how universities are taking steps towards a market-driven system as fees for classroom subjects are paid fully by student loans rather than partly by government grants. Mike says that this would hit those universities that were second choice for students as the most popular institutions seized the opportunity to expand.

Mike comments: “What we see is analogous to what we have seen in the commercial sector since the recession, which is a number of organisations just about paying their debts but without the resources or imagination to rethink their business models for a very different marketplace and being caught in what is called the zombie economy.

“We can see a real risk that we will see a number of universities, some of them possibly well-regarded names, that really struggle to break out of a loop of declining student-related income, difficulties in offering attractive propositions to students, difficulties in sustaining their research income which has been subsidised by student fees.

“[They will] get caught in a slow cycle of decline, but not so catastrophic that they look at closure, especially as the practicalities of closing a university are really very limiting.”

Mike explains how only a few universities beyond Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial, University College London and Manchester would escape a future squeeze on research funding. He mentions that the others should follow the example of universities such as Warwick, Liverpool and East Anglia in developing joint ventures abroad or with private providers: “[They should be] saying, ‘We have got to understand that we are in a marketplace for learning, that we have got to be offering something very distinctive and special in that marketplace’.”


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