2019: business as usual?

Student recruitment, the ‘B’ word and the fee review… Cathy Parnham talks to five key influencers on the challenges facing universities in 2019

Meet the panel:

Emma Leech Director of Marketing and Advancement, Loughborough University

Sophie Bailey Founder, The Edtech Podcast/Tangential Brain

Professor Steve West Vice-Chancellor, President and Chief Executive Officer, UWE Bristol

Andrew Wilkinson Sodexo CEO for Schools and Universities in UK & Ireland

Michelle Stewart Vice-President of the European Association for International Education (EAIE)

Student recruitment

How will universities continue to compete for students with an assumed decline in numbers?

EL: We’ll see more competition across all markets and marketing will definitely ramp up across the sector. In practical terms, universities will continue to look at international markets and also how to grow postgraduate numbers. We will focus on our core strengths, particularly around quality and student experience, and will be working hard to maintain our authentic and personalised approach. It helps us stand out and it’s incredibly cost effective but impactful.

SB: Student numbers are complex. While part-time student enrolments are challenged, the recent statistics from the AUDE Higher Education Estates Management Report 2018 showed UK student numbers 2016/17 (latest) to be up marginally year-on-year. That said, recruitment is becoming far more competitive because students expect a more tailored experience and are far more discerning about value for money and flexibility.

Every other facet of our lives is becoming more personalised, so universities are reaching out to services like Sqore from Sweden, or BridgeU and Full Fabric in the UK, or AdmitHub (a chatbot) in the US to assist students in making the best decision in terms of course choice and employability. We are also seeing services that use alumni to answer questions about courses and universities to help onboard students, as well as a sharper use of social platforms like Instagram to capture potential student admission attention.

SW: We continue to see an increase in student applications, thanks partly to our commitment to practice-based study, focus on developing enterprise skills and pathways and our track record of delivering a high-quality experience and great outcomes for students. We will continue to focus on delivering high-quality provision that meets student and employer needs.

AW: With growing competition for students, offering a great campus experience becomes ever more important. Universities are, more than ever, working with partners to deliver innovative student-focused services and, as a strategic partner to our university clients, we strive to deliver integrated services that support and develop student experience.

Our client Coventry University has expanded significantly in the last five years and continues to do so. We are supporting their campus experience with a completely new dining experience with modern, high-tech facilities and a unique food offer to suit a range of different diets. At Northumbria University, where we manage all the university’s 3,100+ beds, we work closely with university teams to ensure we offer students a personalised, home-from-home experience.

MS: I am reluctant to answer this as it assumes there will be a decline in numbers coming to the UK but we don’t yet know what the impact of Brexit will be.

Do you see the trend for unconditional places continuing and what is the impact of this on both universities and students during university and post-university as students enter the job market?

EL I think the tide is turning and there’s push-back from the Government and from schools on this issue. Loughborough has had a very strong public stance on the issue – we don’t do it, don’t believe in it, and we feel it is unfair and damaging for students. Those with unconditional offers are more likely to miss their predicted grades, and that impacts on confidence and doesn’t put them in the best place they could be to start university study. Employers still look at A-level results – people sometimes forget that.

SB: The job market is moving away from the university degree certificate being the be-all-and-end-all; employers want a greater record of skill set achievement and example. In this sense, as the job market is looking beyond degree grades, universities up the chain are looking beyond school grades. But what is important in this situation is why are universities looking beyond grades? Is it because they see potential and drive in a student or is it because they see another fee-paying place filled? Unconditional places will continue to be a hallmark of the current funding system, as stands, for universities in the UK.

SW: As a rule, we do not offer unconditional places to potential students who are awaiting their exam results. We believe it is much more important to work with schools and colleges to focus on what best supports learner needs.

MS: In my university, we do not offer high numbers of unconditional offers.

The Brexit effect

How do you envisage the impact of Brexit? Are there any key areas of concern and how do you foresee the effect upon international students?

EL: Brexit will have all sorts of impacts on the sector in both research and recruitment terms. There will be other impacts falling out of Brexit that will hit us upstream once the economy settles but, in terms of international students, the current issues around visas and the ongoing dialogue around immigration doesn’t present us favourably. The challenge will be maintaining business as usual.

SB: For students outside the European Union, the devaluation of the pound (tracking to Brexit politics and announcements) means there is an opportunity to come and study in the UK for cheaper than usual. However, we can’t anticipate the currency market in March and the year following, so this would be a wild basis for choosing a university alone. If it turns out that EU student visas are as complicated as student visas for, say, Indian international students, this will be a big deterrent for EU students, and we may see the continuing trend of countries like Australia and Canada doing especially well with international students (especially if the US continues in the less-welcoming tone of introspective politics currently displayed). The effect on international students is grave – there is uncertainty in terms of value and personal experience during volatile times, but we also lose collegiate learning experiences such as Erasmus and/or research partnerships and funding.

SW: We continue to closely monitor this situation. I am very proud of our diverse and multicultural community. Inclusivity is one of our core values and we will stay true to this, whatever the future holds.

As a major employer in the West of England, with responsibility for developing the skills of thousands of entrants into the workforce every year, we also look at how our region is affected. Bristol is an open, diverse and vibrant city, which has a strong economy and excellent track record of collaboration. It’s important that we keep an eye on the bigger picture and work to maintain this. We have an active role on the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership and work closely with local councils and the NHS to ensure that the region is best placed to respond to whatever situation emerges. We also work very closely with businesses across the region and recognise that they need stability, certainty to invest and seek to recruit and retain talent from across the world.

MS: The key area of concern is around immigration rules and how non-UK EU students will be admitted. If we move to a more rigid ‘Tier 4’ regime, then I think numbers will be affected. Likewise, if non-UK EU students are classified as ‘international’ in terms of tuition fees, then this will make the UK less attractive. In Scotland, EU students do not currently pay fees and we have restrictions on undergraduate numbers coming on SFC-funded places, so the issues in Scotland are a bit different.

International students (non-UK/non-EU) do not seem to be affected by Brexit as the visa regime for them is unchanged and some say the weakening of the pound has actually helped recruitment.

The fee review

The long-awaited fee review is due in early 2019. How can universities plan for this and what impact have you encountered to-date from the current structure on students’ mental wellbeing?

EL: There’s been more emphasis in the sector in recent times on portfolio planning and development and in looking at the cost base overall. That is likely to mean that what’s offered will be looked at in more detail at many universities. A reduction in fees will be difficult for most universities to deal with. Cuts have already been made at many institutions and less money means less investment. Students are making increasing use of mental health services in universities as the financial and other pressures they face grow, and it is important that universities are able to meet and support that demand. Reduced fees will undoubtedly impact on funding for services at some universities and that’s worrying.

SB: It is known that student stress and anxiety went up in response to increased tuition fees reaching £9k a year. We don’t want UK universities to freefall into the student debt experiences in the US. (I talked previously with Brian MacDonald, Director Residential Education, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA on his central concern being mental wellbeing of students in my #67 episode of The Edtech Podcast.) It appears the fee review is a bit like the ICO and GDPR (ie universities are not entirely sure of the details yet), and it may be that the costs of some courses may go down and others may go up. It will be interesting to see how universities protect less vocational degrees, such as those covering humanities subjects. It is a challenge for universities to provide excellent student services and courses while remaining within the realms of affordability, especially as we see ever-increasing production values in online learning with courses like Masterclass, etc.

SW: Possible scenarios are being explored, with some potentially challenging consequences – particularly for underrepresented groups. If the Government fundamentally changes the basis on which universities have planned, at a time when there are also significant pressures with employer pension contributions and the impact of exiting the EU, we could see institutions retreating to their absolute core activities. This could see them drawing back from many activities that generate a wider social and economic benefit. The consequences for individuals, and our country, would be catastrophic if the Government pursues this agenda.

We have taken a leading role in our commitment to the mental health and wellbeing of our students and staff, and our work in this area has been well received. 

AW: Our research has shown that there has been a rise in mental health concerns for UK students; there are genuine concerns about loneliness, which then links to academic performance and financial worries. A clear illustration of this is the revelation from our 2017 International University Lifestyle Survey that 60% of UK students are avoiding going out socialising to save money.

Our student accommodation business increasingly focuses on the ways we can support students to settle well into university and to provide the necessary support and signposting of university pastoral care if we can see that a student is finding life hard.

Student expectations

From luxury accommodation to the latest tech, students expect value for money. How have student attitudes shifted over the past five years and do you see this changing?

EL: I actually believe that it’s important to focus on VFM and on transparency, and we try to do that at Loughborough. We’d rather spend money on our students than on our marketing, and we think they prefer that, too! Education is invaluable and it is really important that we help students achieve their goals. High-quality accommodation, great student support, interested and supportive staff, inspiring teaching and outstanding careers’ support are seen as standard now. The reality is that expectations increase year-on-year from the quality and choice of catering to the Wi-Fi speed, pastoral support, extracurricular activities and careers. Fees have altered dynamics, but we see our students as partners rather than consumers and we work with them on that basis.

SB: During a recent interview, an HE professional confided that, yes, students want the moon on a stick. But they also sympathised that if you’re paying £9k a year, plus £1k a month in central London for high-end accommodation, the expectations are naturally huge. Consider a Chinese international student: the Gaokao (national higher education entrance examination) has been your blood, sweat and tears for your entire learning years to-date and university needs to set you, and keep you, on that ultimate trajectory.

Not all students want luxury, however. With so much high-end accommodation, there is a demand for lower-priced, affordable student housing.

The new student centre next to Bloomsbury Theatre is an example of the really good-quality study and collaborative workspaces that students want. On the tech side, they want to be able to access good Wi-Fi and materials online easily and at any time. The 1:1 learning and peer-to-peer networking and learning opportunity of university remains the distinguishing factor and universities really need to step up to help support this match-making, especially as companies like Sense Education are now positioning themselves as the ‘missing link’ of class engagement online.

SW: Students, quite rightly, expect high-quality provision that enables them to succeed and thrive as a result of studying with us. We know that the cost of accommodation for students can be a problem and we are looking at ways to provide more affordable options, without compromising on quality. We actively seek the views of our students and work with them to shape our provision through our highly successful Student Rep scheme, which has more than one thousand members. This provides an important link between the university, the Students’ Union and students themselves, capturing views that drive improvements across our campuses.

AW: Many undergraduate university students today are very familiar with navigating a variety of digital platforms on various devices and tools, and they expect easy access to such platforms and emerging technologies to enhance their experience at university. 

We are using insight to monitor student attitudes and evolve our services to make sure we meet students’ expectations, particularly in the use of technology. For example, with the growing trend for online food delivery, we launched a ‘click-and-collect’ food app at Coventry University that enables students to order fresh meals via the app and then collect the meal from a food counter.

Universities must always respond to skills and business needs if they are to remain competitive and be an attractive option for students. Professor Steve West, UWE

The fragmenting of HE

With the rise in number of apprenticeships and a new phase of degree apprenticeship courses entering the HE market, university education seems more fragmented than the classic three-year BA Hons or BSc degrees. How do you see this affecting universities?

EL: The focus from employers will still be on quality, regardless of the route, and it’s about ensuring that what universities offer remains relevant. All our courses have a placement year option and we put a lot of focus on skills development. Finding the right route is a personal choice, but we believe that demand for high-quality university education will remain.

SB: Students want flexibility and they want solid career opportunities (many within the fast-paced and well-paid tech sector). A university degree still holds a certain cachet but, increasingly, many see degree materials as too theoretical and not responsive enough to the agile practices expected in the modern workplace. Universities aren’t just competing with apprenticeships; they are competing with structured online courses and degrees and specialist education providers. You can now choose from 40+ degrees online; these are positioned as cheaper, flexible and something you can ‘learn as you go’ (Source: Mooch Report: www.class-central.com/report/mooc-based-degrees-vs-traditional-online-degrees/).

Open badge and blockchain-enabled learning accreditation aggregators can also record the learner record among these myriad players in a trusted way. What does this mean for universities? 1. The university identity is constantly in flux against a fast-paced, more agile market of learning. 2. University CFOs will have their work cut out against this backdrop of moveable pieces (three-year courses being condensed to two-year degrees and subsequent revenue losses of 20%+; Brexit and international student number unknowns; and fee review). Forecasting will be hard, and we have seen this with universities needing bridging loans.

If I were working in a university, I’d be more worried about the trend in remote working and co-working spaces and these providers captivating the gig economy worker who will need to continually train. University degrees are largely not set up to cater for this experience. Flexible working spaces are set to grow by up to 30% annually for the next five years across Europe; why wouldn’t your WeWork become the new continual education provider, starting with Flatiron and coding and expanding therein? We are also seeing the big tech giants like Facebook hustling to use their networks to become educational players.

One of the key sells of universities is that they are meeting places and expand your world view; a great many people view Facebook in the same way. In China, day-to-day learning experiences are happening on the WeChat platform. Will universities be able to balance their immense heritage and knowledge with the need to be agile players in a rapidly changing world?

We have seen the announcement of former UK Universities Minister Sam Gyimah confirming plans for universities to be able to charge higher fees for shorter, more intensive courses, but this will not be enough. I believe universities will increasingly partner with alternative providers, lending their deep knowledge and brand integrity while utilising more agile platforms that can target niche learner groups. With the OfS saying they will not bail out universities, I hope we are set for some creative partnerships between universities and new providers, and not the lazy free-for-all for wildly high tuition fees we see in the US. The quality and responsiveness of alternative providers will largely set the scene.

SW: Universities must always respond to skills and business needs if they are to remain competitive and be an attractive option for students. We recognise the importance of new pathways to higher learning, to tap into the talent that we need in the UK, and have been an early entrant to the degree apprenticeship market. I firmly believe that apprenticeships offer another option for students to consider.