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Good morning. A small piece of history today: the first King’s Speech in 70 years and the last time the government will put forward its legislative agenda this side of the general election.
But there will be quite enough time to discuss the content of this morning’s speech after it has happened. For now, some thoughts on a looming crisis in the public realm.
Doss your cap
Universities in England and Wales have a problem: tuition fee payments have not risen with inflation. While costs have risen significantly since the increase in tuition fees to £9,000 a year in 2012-13, fees have not: they are now, at most £9,250.
As a result, universities have become more and more reliant on overseas students to raise revenue. (All this is also true for universities in Northern Ireland, which charge £4,750 for students from Northern Ireland, and for Scottish universities, which don’t charge tuition fees, and face yet sharper financial pressures as a result.)
Now an analysis of figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency by Amy Borrett and Peter Foster shows that students from outside the EU are much less likely to get top grades than university students from within the EU.
This will increase the criticism of British universities for treating international students like cash cows. Jo Johnson, a former universities minister, warned last month that universities had reached “the political limits” of toleration for higher numbers of international students and has called on universities to take “collective action to weed out poor quality and fraudulent applications”.
I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. What does a UK student want out of a university education? Broadly speaking, it is to get a good degree. But for some non-EU students wooed by British universities, the actual degree class is very much secondary. What they want is to be able to say they have studied at a British university.
So this is a more complex story than some of the criticism universities get about degree classes suggests. A more open and shut problem is the number of universities that have expanded the number of places they offer but not the amount of accommodation they provide. (Do check out this excellent long read from Bethan Staton from last year on exactly that topic.)
But the political problem is this: there is no appetite from any political party to put more public money into universities, at least not in sufficient quantities to change the pressures facing British higher education. No party is going to advocate either broad increases in “traditional” taxes, or in tuition fees (the British model of which is essentially a form of taxation in disguise in any case in my view).
And while that remains the case, universities are going to have to woo more and more international students: no matter how much politicians of various stripes might complain about some of the consequences.
Now try this
This week I mostly listened to “Now and Then”, the Beatles’ newly released single while writing my column on “wedding contagion”. It’s very nice: not one of their all-time great songs, but as an unexpected epilogue it works well. Ludovic Hunter-Tilney’s review of the song is exactly on the money and explains nicely how it came together, too.
Top stories today
‘Commonsense Conservative stuff’ | King Charles III will set out a highly political package of legislation today that Rishi Sunak hopes will shape the next election, including bills on tougher sentencing, oil drilling in the North Sea, and encryption measures that put the government at odds with technology companies.
British companies break sanctions | More than 100 UK companies have admitted breaching British sanctions against Russia since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, official data shows.
MP accused of multiple rapes | Allegations that a Conservative MP committed a series of rapes are “very serious” and anyone with information about criminal activity should contact the police, Rishi Sunak has said.
Effort to overhaul buses gathers pace | Buses remain by far the biggest form of public transport — accounting for about half of all journeys. Nearly 40 years after local bus services across most of Britain were privatised, momentum is building to reverse the move in many areas.
Admission after years of denials | The Conservative peer Michelle Mone has acknowledged for the first time that she was involved with a company that was awarded government PPE contracts worth £200mn during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Guardian’s David Conn reports.