Saving Britain’s Universities

Academic freedom, democracy and renewal

10th August 2020
Dr Lee Jones & Dr Philip Cunliffe

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed British universities into a major financial crisis, with at least nine facing outright bankruptcy, up to 50,000 jobs at risk, and government aid meagre at best. Universities also face regular attack for political bias and suppressing free speech. With hundreds of thousands of students soon to be starting their degrees, the sector is in deep trouble, but no one seems to have a vision for renewal. 

In Saving Britain’s Universities, academics Dr Lee Jones (Queen Mary University of London) and Dr Philip Cunliffe (University of Kent) argue that UK higher education was broken long before COVID-19, and offer systematic proposals for radical reform.

Their report shows that the problems UK universities face today have been caused not by the pandemic, but by overexpansion and marketisation. Successive governments have abandoned strategic responsibility for the sector’s size and purpose, allowing reckless expansion, while also micromanaging universities through intensifying regulation. The result is a university experience that is expensive for students and the nation but offers unsatisfactory returns in terms of skills, economic productivity, intellectual rigour and academic standards.

Jones and Cunliffe argue that university expansion has not delivered any of the intended benefits to students, government, the economy, or wider society. Their extensive data analysis shows that:

  • Productivity and economic growth have fallen as student numbers have risen, with the largest expansions occurring in “soft” subjects and vast numbers of graduates in non-graduate jobs;
  • Widening participation has largely involved funnelling poorer students into low-quality institutions, with the financial costs outweighing the benefits for many;
  • Far from saving public money, marketisation has increased government spending on higher education.

They also argue that:

  • Competition has steadily destroyed the integrity of British universities and degraded the quality of higher education, with dumbing down and grade inflation rampant;
  • Far from liberating universities, marketisation has created market Stalinism, with wasteful spending, bureaucracy and managerialism spurred by intensifying competition and government regulation;
  • British universities are becoming increasingly conformist, with intellectual freedom stifled by consumerism and excessive regulation.

To save Britain’s universities, Jones and Cunliffe propose a set of radical reforms:

  • Shrinking the sector through closures and mergers, while rebalancing towards technical and vocational education, including by converting some universities into New Technical Colleges;
  • Re-embedding tertiary education into regional and industrial policy and planning, so universities better serve local communities and the “levelling up” agenda;
  • Ending the competitive market in higher education and abolishing excessive regulation, to enable universities to refocus resources on teaching and research and empower them to reinforce academic standards;
  • The democratisation of internal university governance: empowering academics and local communities to take back control from overpaid and incompetent senior managers; 
  • New legislation to protect academic freedom, to restore freedom of thought and speech on campuses;
  • The creation of four new Free Universities, immediately liberated from excessive internal and external regulation, which will trailblaze a new path of teaching and research.

Dr Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. He was the first person in his working-class family to attend university. Lee has been active in the University and College Union and the Convention on Higher Education for over a decade, writing extensively on university marketisation and its consequences. His academic research focuses on political economy and governance, particularly in East and Southeast Asia. His website is and he tweets @DrLeeJones.

Dr Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict, and Vice-President of the University and College Union branch at the University of Kent. He writes and researches widely on international politics, on issues ranging from the Balkans to Brexit. He is also a founder member of The Full Brexit network, and sits on Cieo’s Board of Directors. He tweets @thephilippics.