In the two months since she arrived at the University of Manchester, Hannah Virgo has been nowhere near a lecture theatre, sports hall or student bar. But she has occupied an empty tower block.
Nearly two weeks ago, the 18-year-old and nine other students sneaked into Owens Park Tower, at the centre of Manchester’s Fallowfield campus, and barricaded themselves inside to protest against the university’s handling of education in the pandemic.
Despite the coronavirus crisis, students were encouraged to start their courses at UK universities on the promise of an undergraduate experience, but many say they have been abandoned with little in the way of financial or mental health support, locked down with strangers as Covid-19 tore through university accommodation, and forced to pay annual tuition fees of £9,250 for lessons over Zoom.
“They moved us here under false pretences,” Ms Virgo says. “Basically, they lied to us so we’d pay our fees.”
With universities still teaching through a second wave of the virus, and a second national lockdown, thousands of UK students appear to be coming to the same conclusion. Some are turning to direct action. In universities from Glasgow to Bristol, hundreds have gone on rent strike, and the occupation at Owens Park was continuing last night despite the university offering to compromise on rent.
A decade on from the student protests against the tripling of tuition fees, the pandemic has exposed deep fissures in the UK’s model of higher education. Dependent on student fees, and with little additional help from the government, critics say universities were driven by financial imperatives to bring students back to campus. They say the decision is typical in a market-driven system in which universities are businesses, bound to view students as fee-paying consumers and prioritise generating income over teaching, research and welfare.
In the past two decades, university funding has been transformed. The UK higher education sector as a whole now relies on student fees for half its £40bn annual income. Universities have become landlords, event managers and caterers in a bid to secure their finances and fund expansion, with students making a large contribution to the economic activity of many UK towns and cities.
Although many universities have large reserves and run healthy surpluses, this left them vulnerable when the pandemic hit. In July, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an influential think-tank, reported that sector-wide losses could amount to nearly half of overall annual income — up to £19bn. Some universities with already precarious finances, it warned, could be pushed towards insolvency.
Within weeks of term beginning, thousands of students had been forced to self-isolate, including 1,700 in two accommodation blocks at Manchester Metropolitan, the English city’s second university. By mid-October, case rates in university areas in England were 701 per 100,000, compared with 141 in areas with fewer students, although cases have since fallen.
“If you’re a student, you’ve been sold the idea that you’d have this slightly modified experience,” says Vicky Blake, president of the University College Union, which represents more than 120,000 academics and support staff. “That was never possible. And now students have been locked down, locked in, paying high tuition fees, made to feel like biological weapons.”
‘Taken by surprise’
Manchester university’s Oxford Road campus, on the edge of the city centre, would on an ordinary November afternoon be packed with a significant portion of its 40,000 students. This week only a handful drifted about the libraries and lecture halls.
Over summer, emails from the university promised that staff were working to ensure students could have as normal a university experience as possible. But just a few weeks into term, a lockdown across Greater Manchester meant the majority of face-to-face teaching was cancelled. Now, students are able to book a limited number of spaces in libraries or computer rooms, but facilities such as bars and gyms are closed and only essential practical work, for example in science or medicine, is permitted.
“We shouldn’t have been told to come here,” says Stella, a first-year arts student who declined to give her surname. Although sympathetic to her lecturers, who she says have worked hard to offer online lessons, she is angered by what she describes as poor management, confusing messaging and patchy welfare provision from the university. “They just don’t have a plan,” she says. “Everything is so unclear and just badly communicated.”
When Stella and her flatmates had to self-isolate after one of them tested positive, a care package from the university only arrived three days before the end of the 14-day quarantine. Stuffed with food that was close to its expiry date, it had to be thrown away. The mental health provision promised by the university proved difficult to access, she says, with long waiting lists.
Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of Manchester university, says the institution thought it was fully prepared for the pandemic, having spent “literally millions” on mental health provision and investing heavily in online teaching resources.
However, she admits to being “taken by surprise” by the spread and scale of the virus, which quickly increased from a handful of cases to more than 200 of the university’s students a day after the start of term. But while she says her “sympathy goes out” to those struggling, she remains confident it was the right decision to bring students back to university.
While it is too early to know yet whether more students than normal have dropped out during their first term, a survey this month by Opinium and student accommodation provider Unite supports the vice-chancellor’s position. It found 93 per cent of students want to stay on at university and 82 per cent are happy they moved into student accommodation.
“It’s an incredibly difficult position, where we are doing all we can,” Dame Nancy says. “The vast majority of students chose to come, and in our experience to date very few are leaving — most students don’t regret going to university.”
A loss of ‘trust’
During the first wave of the pandemic, when face-to-face teaching was abandoned, many universities feared that students just wouldn’t come back. When the IFS published its forecast in July, it made clear that most universities had healthy enough finances to survive the turmoil. But it warned of losses of up to £4.3bn from reduced international student numbers, and up to £7.6bn from deficits in pension schemes, as well as falls in the conference, catering and student accommodation income streams that are now crucial pieces of universities’ funding jigsaws.
Despite calls for a £2bn bailout, the government offered only limited financial support for struggling universities. Even that was offered in terms of a “restructuring package” that placed stringent conditions on universities. Many vice-chancellors saw the move as symptomatic of a hostility to higher education: in July, education secretary Gavin Williamson scrapped the 1999 target of Tony Blair’s government of getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education, saying it was “not always what the individual and nation needs”.
Steven Jones, a professor of higher education at Manchester university, says this financial vulnerability and the rush to bring students back was based in part on the reality that UK universities operate more like businesses, competing to attract the students they depend on for income.
Despite widespread protests, in 2012 the government changed how higher education was funded in England. Fees for home students increased to £9,000, mostly in the form of government loans paid off by students over time. A cap on recruitment was later lifted, heralding further growth in the higher education sector, and a scramble to attract students.
Since then, total funding for higher education per student has increased by 25 per cent, according to the IFS, and the number enrolling on undergraduate degrees has risen by nearly 10 per cent, to 541,000 in 2019.
But it also shifted the source of funding from the state to the individual. Since 2012, the domestic fee income of English higher education increased nearly fourfold, from £2.6bn to £10.1bn. At the same time, direct government support for teaching fell 76 per cent in real terms.
In 2017, for when its most recent comparisons are available, the OECD reported that 79 per cent of tertiary education spending in the UK was from private sources, and 21 per cent from the public purse. But the OECD’s private classification includes loan financing — much of which students will never pay back — and so it likely underestimates the eventual public spend in UK higher education. Still, the figures put it at odds with much of Europe: in Germany, 85 per cent of tertiary education funding is publicly funded, and in France 79 per cent.
As UK universities embraced a market agenda, and moved over two decades from being fee-free to among the most expensive in the world, their contract with students “fundamentally changed”, Prof Jones says. During Covid-19, when the government failed to offer a meaningful bailout to universities, the cracks in the model widened.
About 96 per cent of upfront government support to universities is now in the form of loans, according to the IFS, much of which will eventually be paid back by students. However, Jack Britton, associate director at the IFS, says this shift has not necessarily made universities more vulnerable, as grant funding in previous decades was also calculated according to student numbers.
“Most universities still want to do what’s right for their students, but in a competitive environment they also have to protect their market share and the income that comes with it,” Prof Jones says. “There’s now a suspicion that you just don’t see in countries where universities are more a part of the public sector. We’ve lost trust.”
Refunds ‘would destroy’ universities
In Manchester, that disconnect has been demonstrated in grave and sometimes tragic events, which have inflamed tensions between university management and undergraduates.
In early October Finn Kitson, a first-year student living in the Fallowfield halls of residence, was found dead in his room after suffering from anxiety. An inquest opened in November.
His grieving father, Michael, an academic at Cambridge university, disputed a report that the teenager’s death had not been related to Covid-19: “If you lock down young people because of Covid-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety,” he tweeted. Separately, the mental health charity Mind found 73 per cent of students reported their mental health had declined during lockdown.
In early November, first-year students living in the same halls of residence woke to discover tall metal fencing had been erected around the perimeter of the site. The university said it was intended to protect students from trespassers, but the undergraduates said they felt “imprisoned” and tore down the fencing.
Adding to the feelings of distrust, a week later Zac Adan, a black first-year student, was walking back to his room on the campus when he was stopped by security guards, pushed against a wall and accused, according to his testimony, of “looking like a drug dealer”. After a video of the incident went viral online the university was forced to launch an inquiry. For Marcell Mapp, a third-year student in disaster management, the alleged racial profiling of Mr Adan was personal. “When I saw the video of Zac, I left the room and I just started crying,” he says. “To come to university where I’m supposed to feel safe and to see someone who looks like me banged up against a wall — it really affected me.”
The unease of students has been echoed by some academics in Manchester. Half a dozen lecturers who spoke to the Financial Times say the pandemic exacerbated a feeling of being sidelined. “There’s a very small group of people making decisions about education who aren’t educators,” says one academic of their experience.
The UCU has argued since the beginning of the pandemic that online teaching should be the default position for universities to guarantee safety, facilitate essential face-to-face teaching and ease the workload. Instead, academics say many universities over promised on what students could expect, then flip-flopped on how staff needed to prepare for face-to-face and online teaching, leaving them “scrabbling around” to plan lessons.
Philippa Browning, a physics professor and co vice-president of the UCU branch at Manchester, estimates staff would need to work about 20-30 extra hours per week to convert a lecture series to online delivery, and other academics say planning for a combination of online and face to face teaching requires up to six times the workload.
Prof Browning believes a “mistake was made” when the university emailed students to encourage them back. “Every university was afraid of losing students, and the idea was to offer face-to-face [teaching] so the students didn’t drop out,” she says. “Anyone with any sense knew that wasn’t possible — we were already in lockdown.”
In Manchester, a new campaign group, Safer — Student Action for a Fair and Educated Response — is pushing for fees to be cut to £6,162, the rate charged by the Open University, a distance learning institution.
The Office for Students, the higher education regulator, has indicated that universities should consider claims for partial refunds, which will be pursued through the Office for the Independent Adjudicator.
But, says Gavan Conlon, an education researcher at the consultancy London Economics, universities have behaved “entirely rationally”, given the importance of fees, and made statements about what students could expect “in good faith” in the context of the UK government’s “shambolic” response to the pandemic.
Even a one-off refund of £1,000 per student, he estimates, would push institutions into deficit. “It would destroy them,” he says.
That would cost Manchester university about £40m. With an annual income of £1.1bn, Dame Nancy admits that the university is “worried” about the consequences of the pandemic for its finances. Losses in other income streams such as events and on-campus retail have collided with increased costs for online teaching and campus safety, she says.
The UCU’s Ms Blake acknowledges the financial vulnerabilities of universities. But she says managers need to see past those risks to work closely with staff and students if they are to overcome them. “They have failed because they have not engaged with students and staff,” she adds.
Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students, says the anger stirred by the pandemic and the damage done to relations between students and universities will not be forgotten.
“Students are railing not just against what’s going on now, but the whole financial structure of higher education funding in the UK,” she says. “We need a new strategy, thinking about what fully funded education looks like. We cannot accept that this system continues.”
Square’s $29bn bet on Afterpay heralds future for ‘buy now, pay later’ trend
Jack Dorsey’s biggest gamble to date has sent ripples around the fintech and banking world, with investors betting that Square’s $29bn all-stock deal to acquire Afterpay signals the “buy now, pay later” trend has staying power.
BNPL relies on an emerging thesis that millennials and Gen Z consumers distrust traditional credit, but still want to borrow money to buy goods. Afterpay allows shoppers to split the cost of goods into four instalments with no interest — but a late fee if payments are missed.
“We think we’re in the early days of the opportunity facing us,” said Square’s chief financial officer Amrita Ahuja, speaking to the Financial Times. “From a buy now, pay later perspective, we see, with online payments alone, a large and growing opportunity representing $10tn in payments volume by 2024.”
The deal sees Square join an increasingly crowded space, alongside big players such as Sweden’s Klarna, Silicon Valley-based Affirm and PayPal, with Apple also exploring the market. The sector also faces a brewing regulatory battle, as legislators question an industry that lends money in an instant, often without a traditional credit check to ensure a consumer will be able to pay off their debt.
“This decade is going to be the upheaval of the banking industry,” Klarna’s chief executive Sebastian Siemiatkowski, said on CNBC on Monday. “I’m a little bit surprised to see consolidation happening this early, at this level, but at the same point in time I think this is directionally what we’re going to see.”
BNPL has exploded in popularity over the past year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic-driven boom in online shopping, but industry executives said it had shown strong growth well before the pandemic, alongside a broader trend for more flexible financing among traditional lenders.
Leading into 2020, banks including JPMorgan Chase, American Express and Citigroup each launched flexible payment options tied to existing credit cards as an answer to point-of-sale financing.
The past 18 months have seen a meaningful uptick in the number of retailers willing to adopt the extra financing option. “There’s a little bit of FOMO setting in,” said Brendan Coughlin from Citizens Financial Group.
Afterpay was among the pioneers in BNPL. It was founded by Sydney neighbours Nick Molnar and Anthony Eisen in 2014, and today facilitates global annual sales of $15.6bn.
The company went public on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2016 at a valuation of A$165m (US$122m). In May 2020, Chinese tech giant Tencent paid about A$300m for a 5 per cent stake in the Australian group, which was by then worth about A$8bn.
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The Afterpay tie-up will enable Square to offer BNPL services to its millions of merchants, who processed payments worth $38.8bn in its most recent quarter, while also tapping into Afterpay’s clients, which include Amazon and Target.
The company will also integrate Afterpay into its Cash App, which has about 70m users and is slowly being built out as a one-stop financial services shop for payments, cryptocurrency, saving and investing.
“All of a sudden, you’ve got probably the most compelling super app outside of China,” said DA Davidson’s Chris Brendler, who is an investor in both companies.
Investors appear convinced. Despite the deal coming at a 30 per cent premium to Afterpay’s most recent stock price, the news sent Square’s share price up 10 per cent by Monday’s close.
“This is certainly a bull market deal,” said Andrew Atherton, managing director at Union Square Advisors. “People are rewarding Jack Dorsey for being bold and for making a big bet.”
Square’s entry into BNPL comes as the sector is becoming increasingly competitive.
Klarna increased its valuation from $11bn in September 2020 to $46bn in June of this year, making it the most valuable standalone company in the industry.
Shares in Affirm, the US online lender led by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, rose 15 per cent on Monday following news of the Afterpay deal. Affirm, which went public in January and is now valued at $17bn, recently expanded its partnership with Shopify to offer BNPL services to the ecommerce platform’s US merchants.
PayPal first moved into BNPL back in 2008 when its then-parent eBay bought Bill Me Later. A year ago, PayPal launched Pay in 4, a six-week instalment offering that is free for both consumers and merchants, alongside its longer-term PayPal Credit service.
Earlier this year, Apple was recruiting staff for its payments division with experience in BNPL, as it looks to expand Apple Pay and its Wallet app. Bloomberg reported last month that the iPhone maker was working with Goldman Sachs to develop an Apple Pay Later service.
Industry executives warn, however, that the more crowded market could erode the businesses’ margins, while flustered consumers may also be put off by the rapidly growing number of checkout options.
“The current state of affairs, where you have seven buttons when you go to checkout, I don’t think is a sustainable state of affairs,” said one consumer finance executive at a top US bank. “I think we are in an interim period.”
A bigger threat still is the sector’s immature and inconsistent regulatory environment.
“It’s what everyone is calling the Wild West,” said Alyson Clarke, an analyst at Forrester. “There is no onus on them to make sure that you are of financial health to be able to repay that loan.”
Some companies do a “soft” credit check that briefly examines a person’s position but “not as much as they should be doing if they are lending you money”, Clarke said. “Afterpay doesn’t do any of that.”
A survey of Australian consumers, compiled by the country’s financial regulator in 2020, suggested 21 per cent of BNPL users missed a payment in the previous 12 months. Almost half of them were aged 18 to 29. Morgan Stanley analysts have estimated Afterpay makes about $70m a year on late fees.
The UK’s financial regulator has said BNPL players should be forced to adhere to its credit rules as a “matter of urgency”. In the US, a government consumer protection agency issued guidance urging caution around “tempting” BNPL deals.
In a hint at further possible tensions, Capital One in December became the first major credit card company to block its customers from using its cards to pay off BNPL purchases, calling the practice “risky for customers and the banks that serve them”, according to Reuters.
Afterpay board member Dana Stalder said the company welcomed regulation. “Buy now, pay later is just a friendlier consumer product,” he said. “Consumers understand that, they’re not dumb. This is why they are voting with their feet.”
Additional reporting by Richard Milne
UK pushes floating wind farms in drive to meet climate targets
In waters 15km south-east of Aberdeen, renewable energy companies are preparing to celebrate yet another landmark in the drive to end Britain’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Five wind turbines, each taller than the Gherkin building in the City of London, fixed to 3,000-tonne buoyant platforms have been towed to the UK North Sea from Rotterdam where they will form part of the Kincardine array, the world’s biggest “floating” offshore wind farm.
Wind farm developers have dabbled since the 2000s with floating technology to overcome the limitations of conventional offshore turbines. These are mounted on structures fixed to the seabed and are difficult to install beyond depths of 60m, which makes them unsuitable for waters further from shore where wind speeds are higher.
Floating projects, which are anchored to the seabed by mooring lines, are rapidly moving from the fringes to the mainstream as countries turn to the technology to help meet challenging climate targets.
Britain was the first country to install a floating offshore wind farm off the coast of Peterhead, Scotland in 2017. But existing floating projects are modest in size. The Kincardine array has an electricity generation capacity of 50MW compared to 3.6GW for the world’s largest conventional offshore wind farm.
Now the bigger wind developers are stepping up a gear with plans to build more schemes on a larger scale.
Denmark’s Orsted, Germany’s RWE, Norway’s Equinor along with the UK’s ScottishPower and Royal Dutch Shell are some of companies on a long list of bidders vying to build floating schemes in an auction of seabed rights for about 10GW of offshore wind projects in Scottish waters. The bidding round closed in mid-July with the winners expected to be announced in early 2022.
The UK is separately examining an auction exclusively for floating wind in the Celtic Sea, the area of the Atlantic Ocean west of the Bristol Channel and the approaches to the English Channel and south of the Republic of Ireland.
Developers expect the costs of floating projects to fall rapidly as more projects are deployed. In 2018 floating wind costs were estimated at more than €200 per megawatt hour, nearly double the cost of nuclear power in the UK.
The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, a UK technology and research centre, is hopeful developers will be able to build “subsidy free” floating projects at prices below forecast wholesale electricity costs in auctions as early as 2029. Conventional offshore wind developers reached this inflection point in a UK government auction in 2019.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the UN’s COP26 climate summit later this year, has set a 1GW floating target out of a total 40GW offshore wind goal by 2030. He has underlined the importance of accessing the “windiest parts of our seas” as part of the UK’s goal to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
Other countries including France, Norway, Spain, the US and Japan are pursuing the technology, which experts said would particularly appeal to countries with limited access to shallow waters, or where the geology of the seabed makes it impossible to install conventional “fixed-bottom” turbines.
WindEurope, an industry body, predicts one-third of all offshore wind turbines installed in Europe by 2050 could be floating.
Countries pursuing floating wind are interested in it “not just as an opportunity to deliver net-zero targets. It has a real potential to be a driver of economic growth as well,” said Ralph Torr, a programme manager at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult.
Much like how the UK supply chain has lost out to foreign companies in the construction of conventional wind offshore farms — despite Britain having more than anywhere else in the world — there are concerns the mistakes will be repeated for floating technology. Manufacturing work for the Kincardine project was carried out in Spain and Portugal and the turbines and foundations assembled in Rotterdam.
Competition with other markets was already high as they all tried to gain a “first-mover advantage”, said Torr, who warned the UK government’s 1GW floating wind target by 2030 was not “going to unlock huge investment in the supply chain or infrastructure because it’s [just] a handful of projects”.
The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and developers are urging the government to commit to a second target in 2040 for floating wind, which they believe would provide confidence to industry to invest in the necessary facilities in Britain.
“Because floating [wind] becomes economic in the 2030s, it’d be much better to understand what the longer term pipeline is,” said Tom Glover, UK country chair at RWE. He added that in the Scottish seabed rights auction, developers had to “provide a commitment and an ambition for Scottish content”, which should benefit the local supply chain.
Wind developers are conscious that UK suppliers need time to gear up. Christoph Harwood, director of policy and strategy at Simply Blue Energy, which is developing a 96MW floating scheme off the coast of Pembroke in Wales, said projects that were larger than the earliest floating schemes but were not yet at a full commercial scale would be important in that process.
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“If the UK supply chain is to benefit from floating wind, don’t rush into 1GW projects, take some stepping stones towards them,” he said.
Tim Cornelius, chief executive of the Global Energy Group, which carries out offshore wind assembly work at the Port of Nigg on the Cromarty Firth in north-east Scotland, said the size of floating wind turbines offered opportunities to UK suppliers.
The floating turbines are much bigger than their conventional offshore counterparts so need to be built closer to their point of installation, which precludes using the lowest cost manufacturers in China and the Middle East.
The floating turbines require “an astonishing amount” of deepwater quayside space at ports, Cornelius explained. His company is looking at creating an artificial island for quaysides in the Cromarty Firth in Scotland, which he says would require a “material investment but is entirely justifiable as long as developers are prepared to commit”.
But he warned that “as it currently stands, the [UK] supply chain isn’t in a position to be able to support the aspirations of the [floating offshore wind] industry”.
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China tech crackdown claims ETF victims
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Beijing’s regulatory crackdown on some of its biggest companies in technology and education has delivered a bruising blow to highly specialised China-focused exchange traded funds.
Broad-based tech ETFs have sailed through virtually unscathed, but some narrowly focused thematic instruments have taken a beating. Among those most affected, the KraneShares CSI China Internet ETF (KWEB) has nearly halved in value since its peak in February.
Some ETF buyers are hunting specifically for targeted strategies, despite the risks. But Kenneth Lamont, senior fund analyst at Morningstar, said this highlights the potential drawbacks of tracking a narrow theme without the flexibility to shift tactics.
“The [passive thematic] strategy has no way to quickly react to bad news and will hold the stock until the next rebalance. The small number of fund holdings also means that overall returns can be influenced by the performance of handful of stocks,” Lamont said.
He noted that for the KraneShares ETF, one Chinese education group alone — TAL Education Group — was responsible for knocking 2.8 percentage points off performance from the end of June.
Global X Education ETF (EDUT), which has a large exposure to the Chinese online education sector, was also badly affected.
Actively managed ETFs, such as Ark Invest’s ARKK flagship Innovation fund, can react more quickly. After voicing her optimism for the prospects for China’s tech disrupters earlier this year, Cathie Wood, Ark’s chief executive, shed millions of dollars worth of shares in four China-domiciled companies.
Investors in ARKK have not been rewarded as well as those who simply put their money in broadest based funds such as the Vanguard Total World Stock Index Fund ETF (VT), but they have still managed to ride out the China tech storm far better than more exposed counterparts.
Some investors insist Chinese investments can bounce back. Mark Martyrossian, chief executive of UK-based Aubrey Capital Management, said he believed many of the affected tech companies would maintain their market leadership.
“The gravy train may have slowed but you disembark at your peril,’ Martyrossian said.
Lamont said badly hit funds had suffered such losses because they were doing exactly what they had promised to do — provide narrow exposure.
More nimble active investment strategies also face their own challenges, said Elisabeth Kashner, director of global fund analytics at FactSet. “Active managers may successfully anticipate market reversals, but they can also miss them, sometimes seriously tanking returns,” she said. “Some people can be skilful and some people can be lucky and if you’re lucky and skilful in one period you might be lucky and skilful in the next, but you might not.”
Additional reporting by Steve Johnson
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