‘Root and branch review’ of funding needed, says Oxford v-c

Irene Tracey warns that ‘everybody is suffering’ under the current model

March 28, 2023
Irene Tracey
Source: Ian Wallman

The University of Oxford’s new vice-chancellor has found it “jaw-dropping” to learn how “perilous” the higher education funding model is in her first few months leading the institution.

Irene Tracey, a renowned neuroscientist, also warned of the damage Brexit still posed to the sector when she spoke at an event organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Advance HE.

Having been in the role since January, Professor Tracey said: “The one jaw-dropping thing I’ve learned in my first three months is just how perilous the higher education sector is financially.

“We really have a worrying financial future.

"I know Minouche Shafik, who is the head of the LSE, has been very vocal about this and I think rightly is saying that we need a root and branch, whole-scale review of how we are funding the higher education sector, which includes a size and shape discussion as well."

At the House of Commons seminar on the global impact of UK higher education, she said university leaders are constantly underwriting and subsidising everything that they do.

“We’ve got to be really, really honest about the challenges we are facing in a competitive, global higher education world about the way that we are funding our higher education system,” she said.

“This is going to be a problem if we are thinking about the sector being a main driver for innovation and spinouts for the economy.”

And she told the event that inflationary pressures and the cost-of-living crisis were putting students under pressure as well.

“The students are suffering, we’re suffering, everybody is suffering,” said Professor Tracey.

“I’m a huge champion for how great our higher education system is but we can’t go on like this, which is why I fully support this whole-scale, root and branch review.”

Universities UK, which is carrying out its own review of university funding across the UK, has previously warned that the £9,250 tuition fee in England is worth only £6,600 in 2012 prices, failing to cover the cost of teaching domestic students, and facing further erosion from high inflation.

Professor Tracey said she supported a review as a “mandate and a blueprint to take things forward”, irrespective of what happened in the next general election and which party ends up in government.

Speaking at the seminar, she also warned of the challenges that Brexit still posed for universities – with applications from continental European students “basically going off a cliff”.

“We don’t know what kind of academics and scholars can’t come because of the extra cost of the fees now, and that is a worry for us,” said Professor Tracey.

The UK sector had done its best to work around the impact of Brexit, particularly in terms of reduced funding for research, she added. “Whilst we can come up with different alternatives for getting around new restrictions they’re not as good as the previous offering, frankly.

“We have been resourceful, but the overwhelming preference is to stay associated with Horizon funding and we very much hope that is where we end up landing,” she continued.


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Reader's comments (1)

What is this "we"? £390,000 says otherwise. "Root and branch" (cliche alert) reform would doubtless be good for some, bad for others, perhaps very bad; but don't worry: we can be sure Oxford and its VC would come out of it OK.