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20 June 2024

Mass university closures would worry seven in 10 people, with UK government getting blame, survey finds

Few see universities as an election priority – despite the high esteem in which they are held

Empty lecture theatre
  • Universities among UK institutions most likely to be considered world-class
  • But among lowest election priorities for public, with little awareness of funding pressures

UK universities rank behind only the NHS, the country’s armed forces and the Royal Family in a league table of institutions considered to be among the best in the world by the public – yet higher education comes right towards the bottom of their list of priorities at the general election, even if they do show real concern about the possibility of institutions closing, according to a new survey.

The research, by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, also finds net satisfaction with how universities are performing their role in society has doubled since 1991 – in stark contrast to various other institutions and people, such as parliament and government ministers, where it has declined by around 20 percentage points over the same period.

Despite this, universities rank 26th out of 29 policy issues that could influence how people vote at the upcoming general election, and are now seen as much less important in determining which party the public will vote for than they were ahead of the 1997 general election.

The research suggests this may in part be due to low awareness of current challenges: when presented with a list of eight key institutions that could be facing serious funding pressures and at risk of closure, the public are least likely to identify universities as being under threat.

But when asked how they’d feel about widespread closures of UK universities because of funding challenges, seven in 10 (68%) people say they’d be worried, with the public by far most likely to blame the UK government (61%) in such a scenario.

Three-quarters (76%) of those who voted in Labour in 2019 say the government would be most to blame, while nearly half (44%) of Conservative voters also hold this view.

Findings from the nationally representative survey of 2,683 people in the UK, conducted with Focaldata, are compared with data from previous surveys in order to build a longer-term of picture of how attitudes to universities have changed.

Only the NHS, armed forces and Royal Family are more likely than UK universities to be considered among the best in the world

Of 13 key UK institutions asked about, only three are more likely than universities (30%) to be seen as among the best in the world compared with similar organisations or institutions in other countries – the NHS (45%), the armed forces (37%) and the Royal Family (34%).

Universities beat the BBC (26%), the UK’s schools (20%), police (19%) and legal system (17%), as well as parliament (7%), on this measure of who is world-class.

And this view is shared across the political divide, with 2019 Labour (32%) and Conservative voters (30%) virtually equally likely to say UK universities are among the best in the world.

Net satisfaction with universities has more than doubled since 1991

Comparing attitudes today with those revealed in a survey from 1991 shows there has been a considerable increase in net satisfaction with how universities are performing their role in society, from +11% to +24% – again putting universities behind only a handful of key institutions and professions.

But on this question there is a much starker political divide in views, with net satisfaction with universities twice as high among 2019 Labour voters (31%) as it is among their Conservative counterparts (15%).

Despite this, higher education ranks as one of the issues least likely to determine people’s vote at the general election…

Higher education/universities ranks 26th out of 29 on a comprehensive list of policy issues that could help the public decide which party to vote for at the general election, with just 13% saying it would be a very important factor for them.

By contrast, 65% say healthcare will be key and 60% say the same about the rising cost of living – the top two issues for the public.

…and is seen as much less important in determining people’s vote than it was back in 1997

Between 1997 and 2024, share of the public who say higher education will be very or fairly important in determining their vote at the next general election has declined from 58% to 36%.

But 2019 Labour voters (44%) are much more likely than Conservative voters (29%) to say it’ll be a key consideration for them.

However, caution should be taken with this measure, as people often overstate an issue’s importance to them when presented in isolation, without other, rival issues, and this was only done to allow for comparison with 1997 data.

The low political salience of universities may be partly related to a lack of awareness about the funding pressures they face

When presented with a list of eight key institutions or groups that might be facing serious funding pressures that could mean services are affected or close down, the public are least likely to select universities as being under such a threat.

Only one in five (21%) identify this is the case – even lower than the share who select further education colleges (26%) and primary schools (36%).

But awareness does vary by political affiliation, with 2019 Labour voters (29%) twice as likely as their Conservative peers (15%) to correctly say that universities are under significant financial strain.

Mass university closures would worry most of the UK public…

The Office for Students has warned that 40% of higher education providers forecast a deficit for the present academic year, and that for 43 of these institutions, this would be a third consecutive year in deficit.

Seven in 10 (68%) people say they would be worried if a similar number – 30 to 40 universities in the UK – had to close down due to funding challenges, including a third (33%) who say they’d be very worried.

A similar proportion of graduates (67%) say they’d be worried if the university they attended were to close.

And while fewer – two in five (38%) of the public overall – would be worried if only a small number of universities shut down, this rises to a majority of 56% when they are asked about the closure of the university nearest to where they live.

2019 Labour voters are more likely to report being worried about university closures in general. For example, around half – 48% – of this group would worry about even a small number shutting, compared with a third (34%) of 2019 Conservatives.

The exception is graduates among both sets of voters, who are united in their concern about the fate of the university they attended, with 2019 Conservatives (65%) virtually just as likely as 2019 Labour voters (67%) to say this would worry them.

And on the specific areas of potential concern, majorities of the public overall say they’d worry about students already attending a university that closed down (71%), as well as local educational opportunities (61%), a loss of employment (61%) and the local economic impact (59%), with two in five (38%) graduates also saying they’d be concerned about the value of their degree if the university they attended were to shut.

…and it’s the UK government that would overwhelmingly get the blame – from voters for both of the main parties

Three in five (61%) people say they’d blame the UK government if a number of universities closed over the next few years – double the proportion who say the same about university leaders (29%), who are next most likely to be seen as at fault.

And while 2019 Labour voters (76%) are much more likely to blame the UK government, nearly half of Conservative voters (44%) say they’d do the same – and they are still most likely to blame the government over any other group.

One in five (20%) people overall would blame local MPs for the constituencies where the universities are based, while around one in 10 would attribute university failures to academics (11%) or sector regulators (10%).

Since the 1980s, there has been a big decline in the belief that university education should be mainly funded by the state

In 1988, net support for university education being mainly state-funded was 68%. Today, it is 19%.

This reflects a general trend where the public have become less convinced other services should be mainly state-funded – though only attitudes towards training/re-training the unemployed (net 69% in 1988 vs net 29% in 2024) have shifted to the same extent as views on university education.

Yet seven in 10 still think the government should pay at least half of students’ tuition fees, with few supporting the current arrangement

A third (34%) of the public think the government should pay most of students’ tuition fees, while the same proportion (34%) say the government and students should pay the same amount. Taken together, this means 68% feel the government should be paying at least half of students’ fees.

But there has been a decline in support for both options since 2018, with a rise in uncertainty about who should pay.

And only a relatively small proportion – one in five (19%) – currently say they support the current arrangement, in which students pay most fees.

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“Everyone thinks their own sector gets the worst press, and many working in universities will certainly feel they’ve faced tough times recently – but the public don’t seem to be paying much attention. If anything, their views are much more positive than we might expect.

“Indeed, universities come behind only the NHS, the UK’s armed forces and the Royal Family in a league table of UK institutions considered to be among the best in the world by the public. But this position of the sector, where people are not thinking about universities very much and are generally fairly happy with them, has a downside: they are rock-bottom on people’s election priorities.

“The lack of public focus on universities will also likely be related to the very low awareness of financial threat to the sector. It is forecast that 40% of higher education providers will be in deficit this year – but despite this, universities ranked bottom of a list of institutions perceived as being under serious funding pressures that could lead to services closing.

“It's no surprise, then, that the manifestos from the main two parties are relatively quiet on universities, though that doesn’t mean they can afford to ignore the growing threat. Majorities of the public say they’d worry if tens of institutions closed or if it was the university they went to or the one in their local area.

“And the government is by far the most likely to get the blame for closures among the public as a whole – with as many as three-quarters of Labour supporters holding government responsible.”

Survey details
Fieldwork was conducted via Focaldata’s in-house platform, with API integration to an online panel network. Data collection took place between 1 and 9 May, with a total of 2,683 respondents from a nationally representative group of those aged 16+ in the UK completing the survey. Data was weighted by age, gender, region, ethnicity and education status.

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