Taking a Closer Look at the British University Crisis

Oct 7, 2019 by

British universities are in crisis, and things are only going to get worse according to many observers. The issues facing universities are complex and require complex solutions. Let’s take a look at the scope of the problem facing the British higher education system. We’ll then address a few of the factors that led to it and the general trend for the near future. We will also share a few options for dealing with the university crisis at an individual and institutional level.

The Scope of the Problem

Student enrollment fell four percent in 2017, reversing a trend of constant growth in enrollment. Enrollment continues to stagnate as graduates report to parents and friends that they struggle to pay student loans or find employment that doesn’t require a college degree. (Only 20 percent of jobs do.) About a quarter of graduates are living with family.

But that’s just the students’ crisis. British universities are in a crisis of their own. After going on a building spree that was funded almost entirely by borrowing, a quarter of British universities recorded a deficit in 2018.

The Factors that Led to the Problem

Raising fees for students from £6,500 to £9,000 a year was socially regressive. It put many poor students in debt to pay for their education, and they would end up paying more than more fortunate students who received discounts for paying their fees upfront. Universities were also supposed to get block grants to help make up for this problem, but they were partially abolished when the £9,000 fee was introduced.

Another issue is the government’s removal of the student cap. At first glance, this seems like a solution – more paying students prop up the universities. However, universities went on a borrowing spree and building boom to try to provide space for the massive influx of students they thought they’d see. The problem is that student demand hasn’t kept up with what universities need to break even. Universities were also hurt by their mutual expansion, causing them to compete with each other for students and the diminishing returns for their marketing money.

Potential Solutions

Universities may reduce enrollment in programmes for which they aren’t receiving financial offsets. Another proposal was setting a floor in the qualifications required to matriculate. This would cut the number of students entering some universities. This would also prevent a costly influx of students unlikely to finish if student fees were cut to £6,500 or £7,000 pounds a year.

About half of the student loan debt racked up was used to pay living costs, not tuition. One solution that isn’t being addressed is online education. Online programmes allow students to live at home, eliminating room and board costs. An online MA in Education programme is also an option for working professionals, allowing you to earn a living and pay for the cost of the MA in education. Online education is a boon for universities, too, since they can enroll students from across the UK and around the world. This generates income for the schools at relatively little additional cost.

Colleges can and cut back on the administrative bloat and underutilised programmes. The challenge is balancing accountability for public spending and education without undermining the autonomy of universities.


The financial crisis hitting British universities and students simultaneously is due to both government policies and public trends. Thankfully, individuals who are seeking higher education can now look at alternatives as the government tries to catch up.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.