Almost 70% of people are worried about mass university closures, poll suggests - and this is who they blame

Survey also reveals attitudes to pay for principals and future of higher education funding

Seven out of ten people in the UK would be worried if significant numbers of universities started closing due to financial pressures, a survey has found.

The Westminster government would be blamed by 61 per cent if institutions were forced to shut, with 29 per cent saying it would be the fault of university leaders. However, more than half of those polled said university vice-chancellors are paid “too much for the job they do”, with just 8 per cent of the public deeming the pay packets of principals to be appropriate.

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The research, by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, analysed a survey of 2,683 people in the UK, conducted with Focaldata.

It found 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.

However, higher education comes right towards the bottom of their list of priorities at the general election, ranking 26th out of 29 policy issues that could influence how people vote. The findings come despite huge pressures in the sector both north and south of the border.

The Scotsman recently revealed how Aberdeen University, the fifth oldest in the UK, faced significant doubts over its future before a rescue plan was initiated earlier this year. In England, several institutions are facing the threat of closure.

Scottish universities have also recently revealed they face a £100 million blow as a result in a huge fall in international students to taught postgraduate courses, linked to UK immigration changes. When asked how people would feel about widespread closures of UK universities because of funding challenges, 68 per cent said they would be worried.

A similar proportion would be concerned if the university they attended was to close, while 56 per cent would be worried if their local university shut.

Pressures on Scottish universities have led to a renewed debate over the future of free tuition, while a similar discussion on higher education funding is taking place in England, where students still pay fees of up to £9,250 a year.

The survey found 44 per cent of people said the quality of university teaching and research should be maintained and it should be funded by a greater contribution from graduates. Only 26 per cent said it should be maintained through an increase in income tax.

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Meanwhile, just 19 per cent believed university education should be mainly state-funded, down significantly from 68 per cent in 1988.

A third of the UK public think the government should pay most of students’ tuition fees, while the same proportion said the government and students should pay the same amount. Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute, said the research showed people were generally fairly happy with universities, but this had the downside of being “rock-bottom on people’s election priorities”.

He said: “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.”

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