Future tense?

Steve Wright asks some key figures in the HE sector for their thoughts on the year just finished and on the challenges to come

Contributors:

Alistair Creamer, Co-founder of Eyes Wide Opened, life coach working in schools, colleges and universities

Jodie Rogers, career coach, skills trainer and motivational speaker. Former Global Insights Manager at Unilever

Holger Bollmann, CEO of WPM Education, process specialists and payment experts within the higher and further education sectors

Brian Norton, CEO of Future Finance, providers of private student student loans for UK students

Philip Plowden, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Derby

Q. What lessons from the past academic year will help us to prepare for 2016–17?

Alastair: There are clear indications that young people are struggling to convert their knowledge and academic achievements into meaningful first professional steps. We need innovative thinking to support them in what is becoming an increasingly fractured, shifting environment.

What’s stopping universities from engaging in a deeper dialogue with business, reflecting a much wider variety of industries (and moving away from talk of ‘a career’)? Most young people now expect to have several careers and, within those, a variety of jobs. We should equip them with the skills to thrive in a multi-job working life.

Jodie: I’ve seen students that are insecure, anxious and often misguided about what awaits them in the employment world. Those who prioritise money and status over sense of purpose find themselves trapped and unhappy. And that’s just the ones who’ve managed to find a ‘good job’. Others have no idea what to aim for, or choose a path unsuited to their own values, beliefs and motivations. 

We need a more proactive attitude towards work experience: too often students are doing non-vocational courses, and aren’t usefully linked to their field of work. Many universities are forging productive, ongoing links with employers, but students (steered by tutors and career advisors) must take responsibility for seeking fulfilling work.

Philip: At a time of significant change for higher education institutions, it’s more important than ever to focus on the student experience. Metrics, KPIs and league tables are all increasingly important, but should not divert attention from actual student experience – learning, student support, accommodation, socialising, mastering a discipline, finding a job. 

Brian: This year has been a real eye-opener for student financing. A few years on from the increased tuition fees, we’ve seen reality bite hard. Average graduate debt has risen dramatically: some students are struggling under the weight of debt and using payday lenders to stay afloat. 

We’ve discovered that a third of students now worry about their finances to such an extent that it’s affecting their mental health. The government, universities and ourselves all need to work to ensure better financial awareness before this becomes a pandemic.

Holger: University students are increasingly demanding good value for money. Academic standards are often seen as key here, but there is so much more to the university experience. Our research shows quality of communication, convenience and security to be increasingly key factors in students’ choice of university. These factors determine the quality of internal processes such as making payments, accessing information and receiving support on non-academic issues. These, in turn, shape the everyday student experience – universities should not forget them.

Q. UK universities compete with institutions around the world in attracting the best students and performing in academic and research leagues. What are the current challenges here?

Alastair: Because of fees, the debate now moves on to value for money – what am I getting for my £9,000? What’s the contact time? In addition to the main tutors and professors, what’s the added value that this university brings to my subject? That’s up to each institution to articulate and define. 

However, this is the age of the ‘experience economy’, so universities will start having to rethink how a person experiences the complete offer that that university, its campus and city affords. At £15,000 a year, you should expect to have a fantastic experience.

Jodie: Employability – the translation of students’ education and life experience into employable characteristics and skills – is a third, huge factor. 

Too many universities leave this to the final year, or just aren’t geared up to help effectively. I see many young people lacking the interpersonal skills to secure employment. If a university proactively and overtly offered this skill set, it could set them apart.

Philip: There are two major challenges: the first is insisting on the value of UK higher education and its accessibility and relevance to international students, at a time when the policy context is so negative about incoming international students. The second is to ensure that, in our recruitment, we are maintaining our ethical standards: recruiting students onto courses that are relevant to their needs, at a level where they can be challenged and still thrive.

Brian: The cost of education is the biggest challenge. Many deserving and talented international students are struggling to pay for the education they want here in the UK. Our own data has shown 13% of all loan applications coming from overseas students. 

Even with a removal of the cap, we can’t expect any university to drastically increase their student numbers – at least not in the short-term. They are unlikely to have immediate capacity to teach significant surplus of new students

Q. What impacts are we seeing from the removal of the cap on student numbers?

Alastair: My advice to would-be students is to investigate plans at your chosen university: where are the numbers heading? What’s the investment programme? How is the timetable structured? Everything is connected. Make sure you have the big picture before you say ‘yes’.

Philip: I don’t believe we have really started to understand the implications of this change. It is still feeding through the system. But with application numbers remaining broadly static, and some universities seeking to capitalise on their brand positioning, others will see significant reductions in the numbers of incoming students. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they will shrink, but there will need to be an increasing growth into markets for educational and research services that universities haven’t traditionally exploited.

Brian: While we’re well equipped as a ‘fintech’ business to handle any surge in demand, I do have some concerns that other parts of the education system may need more time to adjust. It feels like the change has been rushed through. If you look at the demand-led system in Australia, for example, it took them many years to prepare and transition. 

Holger: It sounds obvious, but the universities that have the space to take on more students will benefit the most. The more popular, yet smaller universities will not be able to accommodate increased demand. 

However, even with a removal of the cap, we can’t expect any university to drastically increase their student numbers – at least not in the short term. 

They are unlikely to have the immediate capacity to teach a significant surplus of new students.

And, just because more university spaces are available than ever before, we can’t assume students will be less selective.

Q. What’s your assessment of the current student finance situation?

Alastair: One obvious effect of the loss of maintenance grants is that young people and their families will think a lot harder before agreeing to invest £50,000+ in the cost of a degree. For lower-income families, the value of a degree will need to be more tightly linked to progression – when can I start earning? How will my degree get me a job?

Philip: I worry that the challenges to the long-term sustainability of the current funding system have not been answered convincingly. Are we simply postponing the accounting on the cost of expanded university access? I also worry deeply that students who accepted loan funding on one basis find that the cost of that funding changes in unexpected ways. 

I am also deeply concerned about the changes to health education. Shifting nursing and other health programmes into the common loan funding system ignores the fact that these students will spend extended periods of time in (unpaid) practice. How will this deliver the trained health professionals of the future? 

Finally, I would note the loss of maintenance grants, and their replacement by loans. If our universities are to be engines for transformation, it is essential that we maintain breadth of access. Removing maintenance grants for poorer students jeopardises this.

Brian: The sudden jolt north in education costs has created a bigger funding gap for many more students. Government and institutions need to help smooth the transition and raise awareness of the financing options available to students.

Q. How is the current migration crisis impacting on universities and their policies on overseas students?

Philip: UK universities are one of our greatest public assets. We have a global reputation for academic quality, honesty and transparency, and for commitment to social and political rights. The language of fear and hostility around migration undermines the values of education as a global good.

Brian: First of all, it’s highly debatable whether there is a crisis. We have a very low migration rate per capita compared to the rest of Europe. On top of that, you have to consider the many benefits of welcoming overseas students. Diversity is essential if we want to foster a creative, collaborative and progressive approach to learning and development. 

International students still want to come here to study. We should actively promote our education system abroad. But clarity on the ramifications of Brexit is now urgently needed. We must ensure the evolution of student funding solutions enables deserving international students to continue coming to the UK in high numbers.

Q. How will the Brexit vote influence the challenges and opportunities facing teachers, students and administrators? 

Philip: There are clear implications for both formal research engagements and mobility programmes – which will impact on our ability to open up opportunities for our student communities, both undergraduate and postgraduate.

One thing that has had limited attention thus far is the impact on the EU structural funds, where many universities will be key partners in the drive to deliver economic regeneration through training and development. Most critical, however, is the sense that Brexit will make us appear less welcoming to overseas students and staff. Universities have a key role in challenging these perceptions.

Brian: Brexit will have a considerable impact on our education system and on the lives of UK graduates. Initially, the expected drag on our economy will increase demand for higher education, particularly postgraduate courses, as seen after the 2008 financial crash. If the City is hit hard by job losses, today’s finance graduates will see their career prospects nosedive. Contrastingly, law students will be courted with attractive job offers, given the volume of complex legal work needed to implement Brexit.

Government funding looks set for huge change. A new Budget could see the 13% currently spent on education slashed significantly. To compensate, tuition fees could be pushed even higher and brakes put on certain government loans, leaving more students with a bigger funding gap. 

I hope UK universities can remain diverse, vibrant and forward-thinking. If the UK shuts itself off from the rest of Europe, tuition fees for internationals will go up, social and geographical mobility will drop dramatically and creative, collaborative thinking across European academic institutions will suffer. I trust we won’t let this happen. It’s too important to future generations.

Holger: It’s not in the government’s best interest to let universities suffer too badly from Brexit, especially given the EU’s significant recent role in UK higher education. Take the numerous research grants it has already supplied. Some of these support projects that will take several years to complete: the government will surely want to prevent them from unravelling.

Future research projects are another matter. UK academics are increasingly pessimistic about their chances of securing new EU research funding. At this early stage, however, we simply don’t know anything for certain.