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Opinion: Dearth of funding sounding the death knell for public universities?

2021-10-15  Staff Reporter

Opinion: Dearth of funding sounding the death knell for public universities?
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Prof Judith Hall & Prof Jairos Kangira

In recent years, funding for public higher education institutions has been dwindling, and the adverse effects of this have been there for everyone to see – poor research results, low faculty morale, high staff turnover and compromise on the quality of teaching. The dearth of state funding has also negatively affected student populations in state higher education institutions, especially students coming from formerly disadvantaged communities, and those from poor home backgrounds, further raising equity concerns. It is also argued that tertiary students from the middle class have too been seriously hit hard since their families can no longer afford to pay fees for them. 

The state of affairs has thrown stakeholders in higher education into sixes and sevens - education policy-makers, politicians, higher education leaders, administrators, academic staff members and researchers – all seem to have lost their guiding compasses. Downsizing higher education activities and reduction of programmes offered by institutions have witnessed the continuous reduction of the standard of education in all respects. There is no doubt that the meagre financial resources that states can avail to higher education institutions have adversely reduced the standard of education in affected countries. The conundrum has been exacerbated by the non-profitable nature of higher education. While higher education institutions have been strongly advised to generate most of their operation funds, what is often forgotten is that higher education or education, in general, is labour intensive. It is not like other industries that create lots of wealth and profits in the shortest possible time. The financial gains from public higher education, if any, are paltry and it takes long years before they are realised. These funds are not enough for higher education institutions to base their developmental agendas and survival on. 

Let us look at some university systems with different financial models. How universities are funded in the UK changed dramatically in 2012. Essentially, in 2012/13, the student tuition fee cap was raised to £9,000. This cut direct public funding for teaching (in England, in the first instance). This shifted the balance of higher education funding away from the state and towards individuals benefiting from the education. This is certainly why student employability is so very crucial to UK universities: you take that much money from families, then the need to see an outcome. Graduates must be seen to get jobs. Certainly, this has turned students into clients and their voice and concerns are heard much more and taken much more seriously than in previous decades. It has also focussed undergraduates on taking up vocationally focussed courses and increasingly STEMM.

Broadly, there are two funding sources for universities in the UK, the tax-payer (through the government, via the Higher Education Councils for Research and Education) and of course, the graduate, who takes out a loan to fund fees and maintenance. In 2016, student grants were replaced by student loans which the student must pay back once they achieve a certain income, after graduation.  

What is particularly interesting is the financial support that some universities receive from foreign students, especially the so-called high performing Russell Group Universities:

In recent years, home student numbers have remained static and the only growth in overall student numbers has been driven by international students. The UK higher education sector had almost 350 000 international students in 2018/19 or 14% of the 2.4 million students at UK universities. China is by far the largest source of international students with just over 120 000 in 2018/19.

Chinese students contribute £2 billion to the UK higher education sector, and many of the highly rated universities depend significantly on this funding: these universities have fared badly during the Covid-19 pandemic. So, how does China finance their enormous higher education sector? And how do they manage to provide such enormous resources internationally?  

Massification of education in China was far from a mistake and was instigated 40 years ago when Deng Xiaoping, Architect of Modern China and Leader of the People’s Republic pronounced: “China will not become a modernised country just by talking about a grand vision: it must cultivate the necessary expertise and talent to make that vision a reality.” Thus China followed the massive investment in education.  

China takes higher education very seriously and has since undergone remarkable expansion. Of course, this is a function of its rapid economic growth and a burgeoning middle class. The state funds over 80% of universities and in 2016, the BBC reported that one new university opened its doors in China each week. Altogether, China had over 42 million students in public higher education in 2020. Indeed, this success works in both ways, and as Chinese curricula and facilities have modernised with investment, the number of foreign students studying in China increased from circa 1 200 from 1978 to 480 000 in 2017, generating funding for China itself as a major international destination.

The results are plain. China leaves the UK far behind, and indeed the US and other former leading Higher Education economies. One would most definitely call China’s strategy a success. 

If the UK adopts the recent Augar report (, it could perhaps do something to redress the inequalities in the UK system. However, China has consciously ironed out its own inequalities through focused countrywide investment in rural and disadvantaged geographical areas.

The Chinese have an appetite, and indeed now wealth, for international education and they have created a global economic phenomenon: their financial model is state investment at the expense of other aspects of the economy.

As in Namibia, massification in education has happened. The government has pumped billions of dollars into higher education through the Namibia Students Fund Assistance Fund, “a loan/grant scheme which was designed to replace the Public Service bursary scheme whose purpose was to train people to work solely in the Civil Service”. The government also funds higher education institutions in Namibia, but institutions have expressed great concern saying that the funds are inadequate. There have been calls for the government to alter its funding formula for state funding in order for higher education institutions to receive more funds, but it seems this has not happened, as funds are reduced year after year.

It is apparent that there are difficulties in funding public higher education institutions. Long-lasting solutions are needed to make higher education more viable and

2021-10-15  Staff Reporter

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