Universities trapped in ‘triangle of sadness’, says vice-chancellor

The cap on university tuition fees in England has been fixed at £9,250 since 2017 (Chris Ison/PA)
The cap on university tuition fees in England has been fixed at £9,250 since 2017 (Chris Ison/PA)

Students will suffer if the university system in the UK is allowed to “decline in quality” as a result of funding pressures, a vice-chancellor has warned.

British universities would need to recruit more international students if undergraduate tuition fees remained frozen, according to a paper by Professor Shitij Kapur, vice-chancellor of King’s College London (KCL).

The leader of the Russell Group university has warned that universities are trapped in a “triangle of sadness” between students burdened with debt, a “stretched government” that allowed tuition fees to fall behind inflation, and “beleaguered university staff” who felt caught in the middle.

The Government raised the cap on university tuition fees in England to £9,000 a year in 2012 and it has been fixed at £9,250 since 2017.

Professor Kapur said the fees were now worth around £6,000 in real terms and inflation had eroded 20% of the resource of universities in the last three years.

In his report, the KCL vice-chancellor said: “Absent any relief, universities will need to keep recruiting more and more international students to be able to afford to teach their domestic counterparts – making the education of UK students hostage to shifting geopolitics and fuelling national concerns about too many immigrants.

“If universities cannot recruit more international students, they will be forced to replace loss-making UK admissions with international ones, inviting a vicious discourse that pits ‘home’ student versus ‘foreign’ student.

“Or, worse still, the whole system will be allowed to decline in quality – with the first to suffer being the students.”

The paper called for a system of inflation-related uplifts in student fees linked to measures of quality – as determined by the Teaching Excellence Framework.

In August, universities minister Robert Halfon suggested that raising the cap on tuition fees in England during a cost-of-living crisis was not going to happen “in a million years”.

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesman said: “We’ve kept maximum tuition fees frozen to deliver better value for students and taxpayers.

“We provide significant financial support to the higher education sector of nearly £7 billion per year, plus more than £10 billion per year in tuition fee loans.

“International students accounted for 15% of all undergraduate entrants at UK providers in 2021/22. Attracting the brightest students internationally is good for our universities and delivers growth at home, including supporting the creation of more places for domestic students.”