The head of the Office for Students (OfS) has warned that they will not bail out universities from financial crises.
Speaking at the Wonkfest higher education festival in London, Sir Michael Barber said that universities should not assume that the OfS will relieve them and that such thinking “is not in students’ longer-term interests”.
The comments follow reports that some institutions are facing financial difficulty due to falling student numbers. There has been no information regarding which universities are struggling.
He went on to say: “We expect universities to develop realistic plans for the future which reflect likely student demand for their courses and how best they can meet that demand.”
“Should a university or other higher education provider find themselves at risk of closure, our role will be to protect students’ interests, and we will not hesitate to intervene to do so. We will not step in to prop up a failing provider.”
However, some remain skeptical that the OfS would stick to this rhetoric in practice. Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute told The Guardian: “If a big institution that employs and educates tens of thousands of people were to topple over, there will be a major row. When Rover collapsed, the politicians had to get stuck in and it would be the same with a university.”
Unions shared similar concerns, with the Universities and College Union (UCU) saying: “Michael Barber’s comments demonstrate just how out of touch those in charge of our universities really are. You don’t protect students’ interests by bringing about the demise of their local university.”
“The regulator and government should be supporting universities to excel, not washing their hands when things don’t go to plan.”
The OfS currently do not have any financial concerns about the 182 higher education institutions it has registered.
The Office for Students took over as the regulator for higher education earlier this year, replacing the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It has the power to enforce closures and mergers, but has limited financial power to support universities.