Universities Are Not… Really Supposed to Make Money

So here we go with the first of my analyses, for whatever they’re worth, of the negative characteristics of the current English university that help explain why their operations and staffing seem to have come to such a complete impasse just now. Let me start by saying that I don’t mean, by the title of this post, that I consider it illegitimate for a university to make a profit on its business. Rather, I mean that the current UK system has been set up in such a way as to make it almost impossible for a university to do that. This post is for explaining that contention, which underpins the logic of the subsequent posts and helps explain why the current strike action is achieving so little despite its continuing escalation. (Executive intransigence has got to take some of the blame as well, of course, and there are plenty of things that could be done that are more than the current nothing, but I think there is an economic explanation for why we are seeing so little exploration of that possibility.) I should say again before I begin that these are my own views and do not represent those of my exployers and that they’re only true for the UK, and to be honest, for England and Wales within the UK, though Scotland will, on present trajectory, end up here too.1

So. There are three main sources of income for a UK university: ‘home’ student fees, research grants and international student fees, plus a certain amount of block funding from the government known as QR. The last is allocated by ranking in the infamous Research Excellence Framework, an eight-yearly count-up and grading of research outputs.2 We also have to do a painstaking annual account of all our activity called TRAC (Transparent Resource Allocation and Costing) to be allowed to receive it, so the administrative burden of receiving this money is really quite high, and some have argued that it doesn’t in fact pay for itself. This must be truer at universities which win less of that funding than the ones who are ranked higher in the whole process, but has been argued even at Oxford, which is usually at or close to the top.3 So this is a difficult income to value, and the first three I mentioned are pretty clearly more important. Some, older, places, also reap quite a lot out of estate and investment revenues and there is an increasing role for alumni donations, but for most universities the big three streams are the ones I’ve outlined.

The trouble is that these streams are limited and don’t actually cover the costs towards which they are paid. At this time, tuition fees in the UK are capped at £9,250 per (undergraduate) student per year. That hasn’t changed since late on in David Cameron’s rule (remember him?). But a report by KPMG in 2019 established that the average cost of teaching a degree to the institution was just over £10,372 per student per year.4 Some subjects were on average a little cheaper than the fees – including history – but many were not; more than two-thirds of students were enrolled on courses which cost more than the fees. And of course, some universities put more money than others into their provision – Oxford, while I was there nearly a decade before, estimated its costs per student per year as more like £15,000, and the History Faculty sold its own library building to offset the deficit rather than adjust its teaching methods. Most places find themselves in difficulties that are different from that one. But the basic point is that universities can’t charge what their provision costs actually are, because the fees are capped, expressly to stop them from making too much money. And every now and then the government talks about reducing them, which when they’re half the sector’s income, obviously throws every financial officer in a university into a panic and people on precarious contracts lose their jobs.

As far as research goes, we’ve already seen that there are questions about whether the QR funding that supports general research activity is actually worth the cost of receipt. Of course there are external grants, and in some fields they pay for most research activity. But a report by Oxford thinktank HEPI in 2017 set out a good basis for believing that research grants don’t in fact offset the full cost of research.5 That is not least because they are almost never awarded with money in hand for administration, but whether the recipient university ‘top-slices’ it (thus defunding the project by that amount, and making it impossible for the researchers to do it without working partly unpaid) or not, that management cost is still being paid. Most universities are thus subsiding their research activity, presumably because they need it to look credible, but it doesn’t make them money, and no funding body is going to increase their grants to help with universities’ running costs, because they want, understandably, only to pay for the research.6 Once again, the university is not supposed to make money here.

Postgraduate student fees, I should add, don’t really help here unless the student is privately funded. If the funding comes from a project, it’s really research funding and works like the above. If the student obtains a scholarship, that is money the university already has, or has had allocated to it by means of what is now called a doctoral training partnership or centre for doctoral training. In these arrangements, a block of money is assigned to a group of supposedly-collaborating universities who then have to fight for it with each other on the basis of whose students look like the best prospects. It’s a microcosm of the ugly way that funding shortage turns universities into competitors, and has to be administered through a whole system of committees and meetings which chew up hours of staff time that is not, of course, paid for by the actual scholarships, which are only supposed to pay for the students’ tuition and maintenance. So even those lose universities money overall and they would actually make more by not awarding them and earning interest off the capital, except that then of course that would be taken away, because universities are not supposed to make money.

This only leaves international student fees, therefore, which because they are not a matter of public concern for the UK government can be whatever the institution likes. As a result, that HEPI report reckoned that each international student in the UK was probably subsidising research activity to the tune of £8,000 each.7 But Covid has obviously wrecked that market, and while it probably also for a while saved universities a load of infrastructure costs (as long as their IT set-up was ready for a challenge), that bonus is now gone and the international student market has not fully recovered.8 And of course, international students do not arrive equally distributed; some places have many, on certain courses at least, and some places hardly any, so even when it was fully operational this survival strategy was open only to some universities.

This, then, is the context for the proposed cuts to pensions provision, the persistent below-inflation pay offers and the refusal to acknowledge problems like workload, casualisation and the gender pay-gap. English universities struggle to pay for themselves at the best of times, because they’re not supposed to make money. One of their main sources of income has been frozen against inflation for six years (and now, in the course of writing these posts, for a further two), so the money they’re not making has got smaller, while research awards have also been cut back, especially with a whole year of inaccessibility of European funding. That revenue source is also shrinking. And none of this is secure: tuition fees have been under threat of revision downwards for years now (and still are despite the freeze), grants are obviously not guaranteed, QR funding was cut away from the arts and humanities only last year. No-one can plan more than two years ahead, let alone five, so from the top the only sensible strategy looks like accumulating a safety cushion and stockpiling revenue. But all the ways of doing that are shrinking relative to costs. With international student fees also now fewer, savings therefore have to be found somewhere, especially with the financial exhaustion of the pandemic. And since usually between half and two-thirds of a university’s budget is staff costs, the biggest savings can be made there. And saving there, of course, means paying staff less. And so we find ourselves here.

In the next of these posts I’ll argue that not only do UK universities not have very much flexibility in their income, but that the constituencies whom they serve most are not the ones who pay for their existence. That post and this present critical problems for the frequent analogy between universities and businesses, and from that other implications follow. Stay tuned!


1. Though for the complexities of the differences between English and Scottish funding régimes, see The Comparative Funding of Higher Education Teaching in Scotland and England: A Step by Step Calculation, ELC 03-01–34 ELC (Edinburgh 2003), online here. I do realise that was a while ago but I bet it hasn’t got simpler.

2. Most thoroughly condemned in Derek Sayer, Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF, SAGE Swifts (New York City NY 2015), online here.

3. For example, Anne-Wil Harzing, “Running the REF on a rainy Sunday afternoon: Do metrics match peer review?”, White Paper in Harzing.com: Research in International Management, 2017, online here; Dorothy Bishop, “Is the benefit of the REF really worth the cost?” in Times Higher Education (THE) 28th April 2021, online here, and for Oxford, Tim Horder, “Performance Indicators” in Oxford Magazine Noughth Week, Michaelmas Term 2012, pp. 1–3. It should probably be noted that the government do have TRAC and its burdens under review.

4. Understanding costs of undergraduate provision in Higher Education, KPMG LLP, Costing study report (London 2019), online here; the figures I’ve given are not themselves in the report, but can be calculated from the figures they give per subject on p. 18.

5. How much is too much? Cross-subsidies from teaching to research in British universities, by Vicky Olive, HEPI Reports 100 (Oxford 2017), online here.

6. Though, it should be said, while they existed the Higher Education Funding Council for England seem to have accepted that top-slicing would happen to their awards and to have been fine with it, because they saw their business as keeping the whole system of universities running: see A Review of QR Funding in English HEIs: Process and Impact. Report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) by PACEC Public and Corporate Economic Consultants and Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge, by Barry Moore, by Nil Djan Tackey, by Rod Spires, by Alan Hughes and by Alberto García Mogollón (London 2014), online here, with interested references to the different approaches taken by different universities almost throughout. Of course, now HEFCE is gone, so they proved less sustainable than the institutions they aimed to sustain.

7. Olive, How much is too much?.

8. I have to admit that the most recent figures I can find suggest that actually, the pandemic has made much less difference to student choices and enrolments than anyone expected: see Lucy Van Essen-Fishman, “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 2020/21 Student data” in HESA, 25th January 2022, online here, but that is only comparing with 2019/20 data, which had already been hit pretty badly by Brexit and tension with China, neither of which have gone away.

7 responses to “Universities Are Not… Really Supposed to Make Money

  1. That’s a useful account: thank you.

    “there is an increasing role for alumni donations”: you astonish me. After the shabby treatment of the students throughout the pandemic? After all the dreadful woke rubbish? Who are these bloody fools who wish to gift money to universities? Their own education can’t have done much for their critical thinking skills.

    My own recommendation remains what it’s been for donkey’s ages: Dissolution of the Universities. It won’t happen of course: the endless, grinding infantilisation will continue.

    • I think the donors are of the generation who went into work in the seventies and eighties, and are now retiring or ageing further and think the university helped them get where they got to. If enough such people gave, some universities would of course be able to cut loose of public funding; but as long as it’s on offer, I can’t see them turning it down, can you?

      As for education developing critical thinking, well, no, the politicians who are overseeing the demise of the institutions which educated them presumably don’t see the good of what they got, or at least are happy to pull the ladder up behind them.

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