A triangle of sadness: The 3 biggest issues facing UK universities at the moment

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Published Nov 25, 2023 at 11:00 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Across the UK, universities are facing a freeze on undergraduate tuition fees. Professor Shitij Kapur, Vice Chancellor of King’s College London (KCL), has issued a warning about a concerning “triangle of sadness” involving students, the government, and university staff. As we unravel these challenges, let’s explore how this current crisis is going to impact students across the country.

“If universities cannot recruit more international students, they will be forced to replace loss-making UK admissions with international ones, inviting a vicious discourse that pits ‘home’ students versus ‘foreign’ students,” Kapur told news outlets.

If you’re like me, you’re probably very aware of the mounting difficulties and socio-economic issues facing the university system. We’ve had to deal with an enduring global pandemic that’s disrupted our lives for nearly three years, forcing us into the realm of Zoom classes with frozen professors on our laptops.

On top of this, we’ve also had to grapple with unsustainable tuition fees (and yes, we are still waiting for that refund). Now, picture a freeze on those very tuition fees—it’s a reality that is plunging our universities into an even wider complex dilemma.

Kapur, as previously mentioned, has spoken at length about the term “triangle of sadness” to portray the challenges facing university staff, students, and the government. A new report has suggested that these financial difficulties might prompt universities to recruit more international students, sparking debates about domestic versus international funding.

If universities can’t recruit more international students, they might have to swap UK admissions for international ones, which could upend the whole higher education system as we know it.

The Higher Education Minister, Robert Halfon, has unequivocally dismissed the idea of lifting the cap on student tuition fees in England, even as Vice Chancellors sound increasingly urgent warnings about the repercussions of dwindling funding for universities, as reported by The Guardian.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, the Minister did go on to acknowledge the challenges some universities are facing, but firmly stated that raising student tuition fees amid a cost of living crisis was “just not going to happen, not in a million years.”

Thus, Halfon’s stance delivers a blow to Vice Chancellors contending that the £9,000 tuition fee, implemented in 2012 and raised to £9,250 five years later, now holds a value of little more than £6,000 to universities due to soaring inflation. The current freeze is slated to continue until at least 2024 or 2025. This rekindles the discussion around the escalating recruitment of international students, whose higher fees are utilised to offset the funding gap that has resulted from the diminished value of domestic tuition fees. Concerns linger over the potential impact on domestic students, risking their chances of securing university placements.

A recent investigation unveiled that one in every five pounds received by UK universities last year was sourced from international students, raising alarms about the sector’s increasing reliance on overseas tuition fees for financial sustainability.

Yet, the issue doesn’t solely rest with universities. The exorbitant rise in student housing costs is pushing some students to adopt unconventional tactics. The expenses associated with student housing are driving individuals to extreme measures to alleviate the financial strain. A recent report from student housing charity Unipol and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) delved into the mounting expenses of renting purpose-built student accommodation across ten university cities and revealed a stark reality.

The findings of the report clearly showed that the average rent for a room now consumes nearly 100 per cent of the average student loan. This financial strain forces students to grapple with a mere 50p a week for their living expenses. The situation becomes even more dire when considering that, even outside of the expensive London housing market, the poorest students receiving a maximum loan of £9,978 are spending a staggering 76 per cent of this total on rent alone.

Nonetheless, it has been widely accepted that affordable housing should not exceed 35 per cent of an individual’s income. However, the current scenario in student housing paints a bleak picture, far surpassing this threshold.

Victoria Tolmie-Loverseed, assistant chief executive at Unipol, told Dazed: “With rents consuming unhealthy levels of an average maintenance loan, students are being forced to take desperate measures—illegally doubling up in rooms, taking on increasing amounts of paid work or even avoiding university altogether due to costs.”

This housing crisis is not only a financial hurdle but also a considerable emotional and mental strain on students. The inability to secure affordable and decent living conditions can negatively impact the overall university experience, potentially hindering academic performance and overall well-being.

The UK uni system is at a crossroads, and it’s up to us—the students—to navigate the maze. Frozen tuition fees, housing hurdles, and the looming threat to quality education, it’s the stuff of nightmares. Urgent reforms are crucial to ensure that higher education stays accessible and Insta-worthy for all of us.

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