Roundtable: The road ahead – expect the unexpected

From Brexit to UKRI, OfS to TEF, Steve Wright asks four sector leaders for their take on the upcoming key landmarks and challenges


Maddalaine Ansell, Chief Executive, University Alliance

Professor Chris Day, Vice-Chancellor and President, Newcastle University

Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor, University of Sussex

Professor David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor, London South Bank University

What lessons from the pastacademic year will help us prepare for 2017–18?

MA: This year has been about getting the right overall structures in place for the new regulatory framework. Next year will be about the detail. We are expecting to work closely with officials and ministers to make sure we get this right.

CD: The clear lesson from the past academic year would be: expect the unexpected. The last general election clearly indicated that higher education remains high on the political agenda for all parties, with Labour’s pledge to abolish student fees the plainest example of this. Universities need some thorough planning for a potential change in the fees regime in the near future. The passing of the Higher Education and Research Act has clearly changed the higher education landscape significantly, with April 2018 seeing the launch of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Office for Students (OfS). How these two new bodies develop their policies, with respect to research and teaching respectively, will be a key feature of the next academic year. 

Finally, the past academic year has demonstrated that Brexit’s effect on HE will be far from clear for the foreseeable future, with no signs of clarity likely to emerge even during 2017–18.

AT: The political turmoil in the UK over the last year, and the new regime for higher education, has increased the degree of uncertainty. Much of what we expected looks less likely: but universities must continue to prove to our students that the investment in their future is one worth making. The evidence is that graduates continue to get better, and better-paid, jobs than non-graduates. The biggest lesson, though, is surely that uncertainty doesn’t help planning! 

DP: A lot of lessons can be learned, both from the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill and the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Lobbying for the Bill largely took place behind closed doors, rather than eliciting any form of public support – or it played out in the House of Lords with former Vice-Chancellors and Chancellors speaking out against various aspects. To an extent, this has reinforced HE’s elitist reputation.

This also came up in the aftermath to the Brexit vote. Universities rightly pride themselves on their international outlook, but this can sometimes make them seem remote from their surrounding population. Our response to the resurgence of the fees questions posed during the election also has the potential to make universities seem out of touch with the public. After the Brexit vote, the sector rightly let out a collective wail of dismay – but I think that there is a feeling from policy-makers that we have had enough time to complain now, and should be looking at how to make a success of Brexit. As part of this, many universities will want to put a new emphasis on place, and reengage with their local areas. 

Brexit also highlighted stark divisions across the country in terms of salaries and social mobility. I think universities will be expected to engage more with their local communities and businesses to help address these skills and social mobility problems. 

A year on from the Brexit vote, are we any clearer on its implications for HE?

CD: I don’t think we are, particularly given the results of the last election and the narrow majority achieved by the current government. It remains unclear whether we will be able to remain part of the research funding system, or what effect any new immigration arrangements might have on the movement of both European students and staff members.

AT: Not in the medium term. The government has stabilised the short-run situation with timely announcements on access to financial support and the extension of research grants. My own view is that fears over visas for academic staff are misplaced: if staff from China can get visas to work, it seems unlikely that those from France won’t be able to. However, the longer-term position is much more concerning: our EU staff come to work here because we have both meritocratic and exciting institutions, and because they see the borders as relatively frictionless. 

Perceptions matter: the withdrawal from Euratom is seen as indicative of a retreat from multilateral scientific cooperation.

DP: In a word: no, although that is true for basically every UK sector. We have had some reassurances about the short term – the government has helpfully agreed to underwrite any approved Horizon 2020 projects that extend past our leaving date, plus students who matriculate in the 2018–19 academic year will remain eligible for financial support. As time progresses, however, these commitments will need renewing. Students will be considering 2019 entry very shortly, and bids are being written for funding that would fall outside current commitments. 

I think it unrealistic to assume that a new deal will have been negotiated by 2019, and we will therefore not be in a position to fully replace European structures and frameworks. We need greater clarity on the overarching ambition – but we also need to be identifying what a transitional agreement might look like. As Michel Barnier pointed out the clock is ticking down to March 2019 – and we still have very little clarity on what the government wants.

MA: We are already seeing a fall in applications from EU students, suggesting that the Brexit vote and continuing uncertainty on the status of EU nationals is having an impact on those considering study and work in our universities. 

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

MA: During this year’s election campaign it was clear that, for many, the current system of student fees has become totemic of wider issues of intergenerational inequality. However, two important points are often missed in the public debate on fees. Firstly, the rise in the fee cap in 2012 directly compensated for a corresponding cut in funding for universities from the public purse; secondly, it allowed the removal of the student number cap, which is important for increasing opportunities for widening participation students.

We need a student finance system that is sustainable, supports a strong and diverse system of higher education – and doesn’t limit social mobility. Any system which limits the number of people going to university will hold back the opportunities available to disadvantaged applicants and potential applicants.

CD: Student finance has become a hot topic in HE once again, and there seems little doubt that the debate around the balance between public and individual ‘good’, and how this plays out in the funding of a university education, will be back on the table. My own view is that there is likely to be a continued contribution from students, as well as the State, towards university education – but the precise balance of these contributions will clearly need to be discussed. 

AT: The current policy in England is intra-generationally progressive, though it doesn’t feel like it to most students. The facts, though, are: disadvantaged students in England are twice as likely to go to university as their counterparts in Scotland; those who repay the most will be those who earn the most; there is no evidence that poorer students have been put off going to university; and so on. 

However, young people feel very strongly that it is not inter-generationally just. Whilst pensioners have, on average, higher incomes than working families, young people are frozen out of housing markets, see work as less secure and are told that not only do they have to pay for the triple lock on pensions – they also need to save for their own because there will be nothing for them in future. 

All of this leads to a toxic politics, where very few people are prepared to offer realistic financial suggestions for continuing to provide an excellent, globally desirable education.

DP: The problem with the current conversations around student finance, since Corbyn’s election surge, is the simplistic binary nature of the debate: fees versus no fees. Yes, abolishing tuition fees is not very progressive in socioeconomic terms as it would be of greatest benefit to the highest-paid graduates: but the current system is unsustainable and could be seen to have been roundly rejected by the young people it serves. 

Policy-makers should be exploring a more balanced HE system: but this needs to look at the totality of fees and maintenance support. I believe we should reintroduce maintenance grants for all students, with additional means-tested support for those in most need. Making the poorest students take out the biggest loans, as we do in the current system, will only hamper widening participation efforts. The importance of grants shouldn’t be underestimated – the cost of living is one of the biggest barriers for entering HE. For London institutions like mine, living costs can easily outstrip fees.

In terms of fees, I agree that students should pay something towards the benefit they receive – but there needs to be a balance between what students and the state contribute. A university education is not a wholly private good: it has a wider public benefit – social mobility, civic engagement, and addressing the skills crisis that is dragging down national productivity.

Finally, that skills crisis is most acute in certain public-sector professions, where there is an argument for fee forgiveness and the reintroduction of bursaries for some key workers. UCAS figures have shown a 19% fall in nursing applications, for example, since the abolition of bursaries. Any review should support part-time study – and engage those mature learners who have walked away since fees were introduced.

We’ve just received the firstround of Teaching ExcellenceFramework (TEF) results. What do you make of the framework,and how will it shape our sector during the months ahead?

MA: Alliance universities have always championed teaching excellence, and we’ve played an active role in helping shape the TEF. The publication of the awards has prompted a welcome discussion of the different models of teaching excellence. Where other ranking systems tend to simply reflect entry requirements, prestige or research, the TEF seeks to recognise the context in which teaching is delivered. With an informal ‘lessons learned’ exercise currently underway, followed by a more comprehensive review next year, we expect the system to evolve – and, in particular, better metrics to be developed. 

AT: The aims of the TEF are entirely laudable: it isn’t unreasonable for us to be asked to prove that we are providing excellence in education. As the TEF evolves, it will become better able to provide a granularity that will better measure this excellence. The first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) has evolved markedly into the current Research Excellence Framework (REF), and few would now deny that the RAE/REF has helped to transform the quality of research in UK universities.

CD: There are a number of positive features of the framework – most significantly, raising the profile of teaching in a previously research-dominated HE landscape. However, there is clearly much work to do on the methodology of the TEF before it achieves the credibility of the REF. That said, any measure that encompasses student satisfaction, retention rates and graduate employment rates cannot be all bad. 

The situation with the subject-level TEF pilot is more difficult, with various universities stating that they do not intend to take part in the pilot. In the meantime, there seems little doubt that universities with a good TEF rating will exploit this for marketing purposes, particularly with respect to international markets and, to a lesser extent, home students, while those with Bronze awards could encounter difficulties with student recruitment.

DP: I am pleased that South Bank received a Silver award in recognition of our graduate outcomes and personalised learning. However, I still have some serious reservations about the process and I am pleased to see that an independent review is going to be conducted. I am opposed to the linking of TEF to fees, and I remain concerned that this could generate a significant bureaucratic burden. 

That said, the idea of a teaching framework is, in principle, a good one. 

It has the potential to give greater focus on teaching, and to give students a clear idea about what academic experience they can expect from an institution. 

Of significant importance is its inclusion of outcomes for different demographic groups. At South Bank, this has allowed us to redouble our efforts to support students from less advantaged backgrounds, and has been timely in terms of our commitment to the Race Equality Chartermark. The TEF does have great potential to highlight, and help address, different outcomes obtained by students.

How will the post-election HElandscape continue to evolve?

AT: It’s difficult to know. If the Conservatives remain in power, OfS and UKRI will bed down – and there should be some predictability. However, whilst a lot is expected of universities (drivers of economic growth; agents of social mobility; producers of excellence in fundamental science; excellence in educational outcomes for all; agents of UK soft power; contributors to the balance of payments; trainers of the future workforce; sponsors of schools; and so on), political support for us is very soft and prone to demagogic attack.

DP: I don’t think the student finance issue will go away anytime soon, although it seems unlikely that there will be any political will to implement a fundamental reform of the system in the immediate future. Any further changes to the HE landscape are likely to be less dramatic than if the Conservative party had won a large majority – plans for a review of tertiary funding, and for universities to sponsor schools, seem to have been put on hold indefinitely. Elsewhere, alongside universities’ greater engagement with their communities, I can foresee the government attempting to rebalance research funding away from the London/Oxford/Cambridge ‘golden triangle’, while post-Brexit consideration of how innovation is supported nationally will become increasingly important.

MA: Both the main political parties agree on the need for a modern industrial strategy, and universities have a big role in this agenda. This includes providing lifelong learning in technical and professional education, so that the existing workforce can reskill and upskill; supporting innovative firms to grow and create jobs; and nurturing emerging sectors with world-class R&D.

Most importantly, though, debates about industrial strategy have increasingly emphasised the importance of ‘place’ and this is where universities, as anchor institutions, can provide the vital linkages between people, businesses, talent and research to underpin sustainable growth across our cities and regions.

CD: UKRI and the OfS will start to implement changes outlined in the Higher Education and Research Act, and these changes will have an effect. There seems little doubt that the recent focus on graduate employability will continue, with universities increasingly expected to play a role in the skills agenda through such schemes as degree-level apprenticeships. The role of HE in implementing the government’s new industrial strategy remains unclear – but it seems likely that they will play at least some role in the place-based clusters. 

Consideration of implications for higher education in Brexit will hopefully be at least part of the negotiating agenda, however, I don’t imagine that these considerations will be at the front of the queue. What the last election demonstrated is that higher education remains a political hot topic, with student fees perhaps the most likely target for future debate and potential reform. 

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