Roundtable: Talk of the gown

From Brexit and the Office for Students to money and wellbeing, we quiz six industry insiders on the likely challenges for the 2018-19 academic year

Gathered around our high-powered table of chat we find:

Professor Judith Lamie Pro Vice-Chancellor External Affairs, University of Derby

Mark Stoddard Director of Operations, Association of MBAs (AMBA)

Andrew Main Wilson CEO, AMBA

Stewart Ross Chair, College and University Business Officers (CUBO)/ Director, Commercial and Campus Support Services, University of Leeds

Professor Aldwyn Cooper Vice-Chancellor and CEO, Regent’s University London

Gin Bhandal Principal Consultant, Education Practice, Berwick Partners

What lessons from the past academic year will help us prepare for 2018–19?

JL: Over the past 12 months universities have faced a number of political, social and economic challenges under increased scrutiny. We have a new independent regulator, the Office for Students, to hold universities to account and to ensure students receive a high-quality education: and public and media interest in universities’ place in society, and the ‘value for money’ that we offer, has never been greater.

Because of this, transparency should be a priority. Understandably, questions are being asked about how tuition fees are spent, and universities should be prepared to be clear and upfront about this. But we should also be more bold and proactive in terms of collectively telling the story about our real value, not just to students but to society as a whole, as well as the life-changing impact going to university can have.

MS: Business schools will need to continue to be flexible in light of the growing uncertainty from Brexit and other geopolitical challenges worldwide.

SR: Despite the significant challenges ahead, I am positive about our collective ability to respond and adjust as a sector. Universities have shown that they can adapt, and we have a strong commitment to continuous improvement – which I don’t think is as celebrated as it should be!

This past year has shown how fragile the sector’s unity can be, and the damage that disruption and division can cause. Clearly, wherever possible, we must focus on working collectively across mission groups, employer and employee representatives and sector bodies (like my own) to robustly make the case for HE. We can sometimes wrongly assume that people want to hear what we have to say. There is a strong narrative about HE in the media and in wider society, which we need to penetrate with some coherent voices.

AC: The removal of the numbers cap is having a big impact on university recruitment. The substantial increase in unconditional offers, especially by Russell Group universities, will have a major effect on recruitment for many universities. Russell Group institutions are taking many more students, often with lower grades. Some are not providing the resources to support the increased numbers, and this will have an impact on student experience. This may account for the decline in overall satisfaction at some highly ranked universities. Lower-ranked universities, meanwhile, may struggle to meet recruitment targets in a declining demographic. which may cause serious financial difficulties.

Elsewhere, there is clear evidence that the UK is becoming less attractive to international students. We are no longer the second-favourite destination of choice for Anglophone learners, slipping to third behind Australia. The badly administered visa system makes international students feel unwelcome. The inclusion of students in the net immigration figures is simply wrong. These students feel as if they are only valued for their money and not for the rich cultural contribution that they bring. Many institutions do not make the effort to ensure that such students are integrated fully with others, and they live a siloed life with fellow nationals.

Most institutions in the UK have grand plans to increase international student numbers. Under current circumstances, these are utterly unrealistic and numbers are likely to decline. This will be to the detriment of the UK economy, and also to the soft power that has been generated traditionally by educating people from around the world.

There is a growing feeling among both domestic and international students that their fees are not value for money. Many universities have invested considerable borrowed sums in new buildings and sports facilities and must now service these debts. The evidence is that students would prefer their fees to be spent on more and better teaching.

GB: Talent management has started to rise to the fore in the past academic year, with increasing focus on developing staff, hiring the best people and looking broadly for talent. I’d like to see more of this in the coming year.

The sector is complex, changing and under significant financial pressure – and needs the best people in order to compete. Appointing diverse leaders and staff will engender cultures that think differently and promote innovative ways of delivering research and meaningful differences to the lives of students. Preparing for 2018–19 should absolutely be about creating effective teams, the impact of which will no doubt be seen across all sector metrics and rankings.

“In England, one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem in any given week, and approximately one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. We should be there for each other.”

Are we any clearer today on the Brexit implications for HE?

JL: The Brexit vote has posed many questions for higher education institutions. Will we still be able to attract and retain talented students and staff? What will happen to research funding and collaborations such as Horizon 2020, and will our students still be able to broaden their knowledge and experience through hugely valuable schemes such as Erasmus?

Some steps have now been taken to clarify some of our key concerns. We welcomed the announcement, by Education Secretary Damian Hinds, that EU students applying to UK universities next year will pay the same tuition fees, and have access to the same support, as English students. However, there has been no long-term decision about what will happen post-Brexit.

There has also been some clarity from the Government’s recent Brexit White Paper, which states that EU citizens will be allowed to travel freely without a visa in the UK for tourism and temporary work, and that EU students will be allowed to study in the UK, with an end to free movement in December 2020. Encouraging, but what happens after 2020? We need to be able to continue attracting world-class researchers and international students – they play a huge part in the UK’s economic development and growth, as well as making a valuable contribution to society more generally – but this becomes difficult with the absence of clarity beyond 2020.

MS: Not particularly, and uncertainty is still the biggest issue. However, business schools and universities continue to be concerned about the consequences for research funding (a large proportion of which comes from the EU), and Brexit may also impact on student exchange programmes for European students. Brexit can also create the perception that the UK is not welcoming to international students – particularly damaging for the MBA, which has seen such strong recruitment to the UK for many years.

AC: There is absolutely no firm information about the way in which Brexit may affect HE. Thus far, there are only statements about availability of student funding and guarantees for research project funding that extend until 2020. However, if the UK does leave the EU fully, it is difficult to see how continental EU students or staff could receive benefits over international students and staff from outside the UK. This would mean that the 100,000+ current EU students would require Tier 4 visas and all staff would require Tier 2 visas, which are strictly limited. International students would probably have to pay full international fees and without access to the loan company.

Under these circumstances, the overall numbers of EU students will probably decline significantly. This could be financially devastating for some institutions, especially lower-ranked institutions that rely on this income. Many of these provide a first-class service to their localities, which may be threatened.

With the current lack of clarity, there is growing evidence that academics are more resistant to accepting positions in the UK as this may have a deleterious impact on their long-term careers. Until now, the UK has been the greatest recipient of EU research funding and this has been essential to support our world-class research. Despite some reassurance about short-term research project funding, there is increasing tendency for EU-based universities to exclude UK research partnerships.

GB: The only clarity so far is that it is likely to have severe ramifications on research, funding, student life and attracting overseas talent. Beyond that, the ambiguity surrounding the free movement of people leaves more questions than answers.

Another concern is the UK’s future participation in Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe. While the Brexit White Paper shows a willingness for “exploring participation” in future EU schemes, it stops short of demonstrating a full commitment to maintaining the funding required to keep the UK HE system internationally competitive.

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

JL: The current system could be considered to be socially progressive: removing the upfront costs of studying has widened participation in higher education. And the current system, linking graduates’ contributions to their earnings, is a fair way of contributing to the cost of university.

However, the language of ‘loans’ and ‘debt’ can be confusing and can put a psychological burden onto graduates, as in reality many graduates do not pay their off loans in full, so the burden is much lower than it appears. This could be mitigated by changing the language, from ‘loans’ and ‘debt’ to ‘graduate contributions’ for example.

In reality, reducing or scrapping fees wouldn’t actually make any difference to lower-earning graduates. Only wealthier graduates would benefit, as the value of their contributions would fall. It would, however, have a negative impact on modern universities such as Derby, who are much more dependent on income from tuition fees than the research-intensive institutions. In 2016, 73% of our income came from fees, compared to 40% for the Russell Group average. You can see then that if fees were lowered, without compensation, universities like Derby would be impacted upon the most. This would, in turn, endanger social mobility, given that we recruit a much higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

One element that would make a significant difference to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and would help widen participation, is the reintroduction of maintenance grants. They would not only provide additional financial support to those who need it most, but would also reduce their debt burden and help enable improved outcomes.

Any reforms should ultimately be about reducing barriers and improving access to higher education.

SR: We await the outcomes of the Government-led review of student finance. The review has a focus on choice, value, access and skills… as well as a strong narrative around wage return from course investment and, of course, the need to address student debt. I hope no decisions are taken that might ultimately remove the sector’s financial sustainability – but I also feel it is time for change to address the financial burdens faced by students.

AC: I would have preferred to go down the line of a graduate tax, which could have avoided all the misunderstandings about loans and debt. The tax would be paid by those who have benefited from HE and not from the public as a whole. The UK is actually very generous in terms of its funding of HE for quality HE. A comparison with the US would support this.

I feel that it would be quite wrong to have differential fees caps on different programmes. The arts would be bound to suffer and the UK’s gold-standard conservatoire, creative and arts institutes and universities with strong arts faculties would suffer considerably, to our financial and cultural disadvantage.

GB: With the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck in voting intentions, and with student fees at the core of Jeremy Corbyn’s higher education strategy, it would not be unrealistic to look ahead to a sector where the £9,250 fee is a thing of the past, with the sector yet again having to adapt its operating models.

Should things remain as they are, students face a mountain of debt on graduating. Even so, a university education should still be viewed as a lifelong investment that arms future generations with skills to tackle the modern world.

Every university has a major role to play with regards to employability and entrepreneurship, and we are seeing some incredible work going on in the sector to help unlock potential and value. From the University of Southampton’s Future Works to the University of Salford’s Industry Collaboration Zone Strategy, there is a clear desire to prepare students for their life beyond campus.

“This past year has shown how fragile the sector’s unity can be, and the damage that disruption and division can cause.”

How will HE continue to tackle the student mental health crisis?

JL: Mental health is an issue facing society as a whole, with many interlocking causes, which means there is no one magic cause and no one miracle solution.

However, Universities UK’s Step Change Framework highlights the need for higher education leaders to adopt mental health as a strategic priority – something we do at Derby. The framework is aimed at embedding mental health and wellbeing across all university activities.

As part of the University Mental Health Charter, led by Student Minds and funded by the UPP Commission, recognition will be given to those institutions that make student and staff mental health a university-wide priority and deliver improved student mental health and wellbeing outcomes.

Sharing best practice among universities, collaborating on research to advance the sector, adopting a whole-university approach building on support services and existing external links – these should all help to provide an environment where students feel supported.

AMW: As more taboos are broken around mental health, a growing number of students and staff feel empowered to talk about mental health and stress.

Line managers should also be vigilant for early warning signs of mental health issues, and intervene and provide support at the earliest possible opportunity.

Our research in 2016 found that more than a third of our members had access to courses about stress and mental health as part of their MBA programme. This would have been unheard of 15 years ago.

Also, with more importance being placed on soft skills in the workplace, topics such as handling pressure, resilience, stress management and mindfulness are becoming more essential to more MBA programmes. All AMBA-accredited Business Schools have student support services in place and provide details to new recruits.

SR: For some time the sector has recognised its critical role in supporting the wellbeing of students and staff. Alongside increased investment, the drive to integrate and connect providers of services and support across institutions has been really important in ensuring that students don’t find themselves neglected, or information not passed on as it should be.

At Leeds, we have developed some really innovative referral programmes using physical activity, sport and fitness programmes.

Finally, supporting the student in their own setting, rather than centrally, remains critical. Res Life programmes, ensuring students have support within halls of residence, are becoming prevalent.

AC: The developing crisis cannot be set simply at the door of universities, and recent research has shown that the incidence of mental health problems is lower in universities than in the population as a whole. Problems start at home and parents need instruction on how to be of more help to their children and how to spot incipient problems. Schools should be provided with more resources to spot problems generated so much by inappropriate use of social media.

However, this is no time for complacency, and universities should invest more in support, communication and counselling. For example, Regent’s has started to provide additional personal tutorial support, set up a Student Hub with staff who can provide support on any subject, and given additional access to counselling and promoted mentoring.

It is also important to emphasise to students that admitting difficulties is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. In England, one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem in any given week, and approximately one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. We should be there for each other.

GB: Rightly, tackling mental health during university life continues to gain momentum. We are seeing more integrated approaches to university mental health services which are improving access and service delivery.

Coordinated working with local and primary healthcare providers in the communities surrounding universities has enabled students to find more ways to get help. Where awareness of mental health issues used to be previously limited to student services, we are now in a climate where academics, student peers and physical spaces like the library can all provide the support required for better wellbeing.

How will the relationship between universities and the Office for Students (OfS) develop?

JL: Since launching at the start of the year, the OfS has already delved into some of the topical issues in the higher education sector, launching new guidance on justifying and releasing details of pay for vice-chancellors as well as conducting a review of its approach to access and participation plans, student premium funding, and the National Collaborative Outreach Programme to achieve a reduction in gaps in education.

The sector has said from the outset that it is vital that the regulator wins the confidence of students and the public, and remains focused on students having access to high-quality education, particularly in such a fast-changing sector.

SR: This is going to be one of the most interesting and challenging areas for the next 12 months. The response to the unconditional offer debate, for example, has been fascinating. I hope that the OfS can withstand the cries for action emerging from headlines, moderate its love of statistical activity, and focus on successfully helping the sector to navigate the next period of change.

AC: I am sure that the current difficulties between the OfS and HE institutions will slowly be resolved. There is currently a great deal of concern about the approach that the OfS appears to be taking – demanding too much, over-using metrics that wrongly treat all types of institutions in the same way.

Universities must first learn to recognise that there is a radical difference between the old Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the OfS. HEFCE was there to support universities: the OfS is a regulator, and thus bound to be more intrusive. The staff at OfS, who have all transferred from HEFCE, are still coming to terms with their new roles and expectations. Communications are not yet fully in place or clear. However, I am sure that there is room for compromise and the development of understanding on both sides over the years ahead.

GB: We are now starting to see some welcome clarity around the relationship. In the OfS’s quest to deliver value for students, we can expect to see a number of key themes emerging when it comes to how our universities operate. These will no doubt include reviews into senior staff pay, unconditional offers and degree classifications, some of the top priorities for OfS, with reports due this calendar year.

Looking further into the future, the OfS’s three-year strategy aims to deliver on its four outcomes and ultimate aim of delivering student value for money. It will be interesting to see how heavy the OfS comes down on ‘poor performing’ institutions, and whether it is well-placed to drive positive change.