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New pressures affecting the financial health of higher education institutions in England could leave the sector facing a net debt approaching £4 billion, funding chiefs have warned.
Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, told delegates at Hefce’s annual meeting in London that universities’ own financial projections suggested the sector as a whole will fall into the red by as much as £3.9 billion in just two years.
A report on the financial health of the HE in England due to be published by Hefce in November paints a worrying picture of falling surpluses and increasing borrowing, with significant and growing variations in the financial position of different institutions.
The forecasts also show a growing and potentially unrealistic reliance on increases in fee income from international students to prop up finances. Institutions are projecting a 25 per cent real terms rise in revenues from overseas student fees, at a time when the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show a flattening market.
Professor Atkins commented: “There is a question of how realistic this is going to be.”
Adding to the concerns is the fact that the forecasts were taken before institutions knew the outcome of the EU referendum. The impact of Brexit is therefore not included in the calculations.
Professor Atkins warned that if overseas student numbers and fee income failed to rise, surpluses across the sector could fall to as little as 0.2 per cent of income by 2018-19.
Institutions have been more cautious in their forecasts for capital spending, which is expected to start to fall from its high point this academic year. A quarter of the sector is holding off from committing to further capital investment in 2018-19, which may in part be due to caution over the unfolding situation over Brexit, Professor Atkins said.
The report also points to an increasing backlog in estates maintenance, not on new buildings but on keeping existing facilities up to "baseline requirements".
Professor Atkins said the overall situation presented major challenges for university senior managers and governors. While in the past a decline in the sector's finances might have been seen as a blip "there is more of a sense now that there are many issues that could impact on financial health".
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