Brexit, student mental health, good and bad headlines… these are turbulent times for higher education

Steve Wright asks four experts for their thoughts on all that has happened in the year to date, and what is coming over the horizon

The panel:

Dr Greg Walker Chief Executive, MillionPlus – the Association for Modern Universities

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

Andrew Basu-McGowan Policy Lead, Innovation and Place – National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB)

Phil Richards Chief Innovation Officer, Jisc

In your opinion, has 2018 been a successful year for UK HE?

GW: Despite the immense turbulence generated by debates over Brexit and the challenges faced by minority governments across the UK, there is reason to be genuinely upbeat about UK higher education. I have no doubt that we have the strongest, most vibrant university sector, for a nation of our size, in the world. Our emphasis on delivering quality and our ability to innovate and work with students as partners are critical to this success. The continuing high level of applications from students from the EU and further afield demonstrates this.

AC: While some universities, including Regent’s, may have had a successful year, it has been a difficult and negative year for the sector as a whole. There is every sign that domestic, European and international recruitment is in decline. The downward demographic of young students will continue until 2026. More young people are considering the value of a university degree very carefully and are opting for early, direct entry into the workplace.

The removal of the numbers cap and excessive unconditional offers have increased recruitment at some ‘top’ universities – but only by substantially reducing recruitment at lower-ranked universities and threatening major problems for financial sustainability.

Maintaining international student numbers in the net immigration figures and refusing post-graduation employment in the UK for the majority of such students presents a very negative image of the UK for potential students, who will seek places elsewhere.

The deepening confusion about Brexit generates antagonism among potential EU students, and is deterring top academics from coming here, for fear of exclusion from collaborative research projects and funding.

The introduction of the Office for Students (OfS) has not been as effective as might have been wished. Almost a third of HE providers are yet to be placed on the new register for 2019/20, despite the fact that recruitment for that year has commenced.

It appears that many institutions may be in breach of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) regulations by not warning potential students that all offers would be subject to registration.

ABM: NCUB can, of course, be expected to answer ‘yes’ to this question. But we can’t pretend the picture isn’t a challenging one. Press coverage has hardly been relentlessly positive; working with a new support and governance landscape, however well-designed and intentioned, was always going to require some careful thought; and the perceptual impacts of Brexit have already taken a toll on how our institutions are regarded globally.

However, there have been some remarkable success stories, and universities seem ever more attuned to their economic, civic and knowledge-exchange agendas, and ever more switched on to opportunities to influence policy direction. The sector is resilient.

PR: In fundamental terms, yes, but I feel the sector has perhaps made it too easy for some sections of the media to peddle bad news. If the headlines are to be believed, universities are competing not on price and quality, but on unconditional offers and inflated grades handed out to essay-mill-addicted students ill-equipped for the modern workplace. But UK HE would simply not continue to grow in popularity in the way it is if that were true.

I hope that next year the sector will push back, and get the good news out there of how students’ lives are being transformed for the better, and how university research is improving and enriching the whole of society.

How will developments with Brexit impact the sector next year?

GW: This is the $64,000 question. There is little doubt that crashing out of the EU without proper preparation would be damaging to many sectors, including HE. We know the Government is negotiating to avoid this, and we have published policy statements recommending a position to take. In the more likely event of a negotiated exit, we should be looking to secure a deal on a reciprocal fee arrangement for students from European nations wishing to study in the UK, to prevent a big drop in EU students.

MillionPlus has recommended an arrangement similar to that implemented in Scandinavia and Australia-New Zealand, where students can cross the Tasman Sea to study for the same fee as local students – and without needing a student visa.

AC: Currently, there is no certainty about any aspect of Brexit. The possibility of another referendum appears to be growing – but with no definition of what this would ask or the likely outcome. The length of a transition period, if the UK does leave, is yet to be agreed. The UK Government is under threat and future leadership is uncertain.

EU students come to the UK both for the quality of the education provision and for access to the Student Loan Company (SLC). Recruitment from the EU is marginally up in September 2018 as students seek to get in ‘under the wire’ to benefit from the current freedom of movement and loans. However, in a worst-case scenario, where continental EU nationals would require a Tier 4 visa, would have to pay international student fees and would have no rights to future employment in the UK, recruitment could drop off a cliff. Top universities would be affected but survive on reputation, at least for now – but lower-ranked institutions could be devastated.

ABM: Assuming that Brexit will unfold as predicted is a dangerous enough game in itself, without making predictions as to its effect. So. I’ll pack away the tea leaves, horoscopes and crystal ball and think, instead, in terms of how some negative impacts might be mitigated.

It’s encouraging to hear [Higher Education Minister] Sam Gyimah speak of continued engagement with EU funding programmes, if only for the networking and collaboration they engender; the UK has accessed 14% of the total Horizon 2020 budget to-date and replacing it won’t be easy. And warm words don’t equal progress. Government needs to work through any issues with Horizon Europe fast, if we’re to maintain productive engagement, even on a 1-1 basis.

Likewise, rhetoric and policy emerging from the Home Office needs to keep pace with our universities’ needs for the best and brightest minds. We must streamline and modernise our immigration system in pursuit of an advanced knowledge economy, and ensure that the messages we give the world are confident, outward-looking and welcoming. This also extends to the EU nationals already doing such valuable work in our institutions.

PR: The closer we get to Brexit, the less clear things seem to get. On the positive side, there seems to be growing acceptance that we must be fully open for skilled labour from all over the world – and I assume this includes academics and researchers. As research and higher education is a global endeavour, not just a European one, a genuine ‘whole-world’ approach can only give benefit. I hope a similarly open mindset applies to recruitment of bona fide students from around the globe and, more importantly, that the tone of voice of UK Visas & Immigration changes to reflect this.

Major initiatives have been launched this year to improve student mental health. Will HE continue to improve on this in 2019?

GW: This is an absolutely critical area of work for universities. We’ve already seen a major shift to enhance wellbeing support and counselling services for those facing mental health challenges at university. Efforts are being redoubled to deliver further improvements to students in this area. Universities can’t do this on their own; they will have to work with local NHS services and the excellent mental health charities, such as Student Minds, who can offer their expertise.

AC: Statistics issued by the Office for Students (OfS) show that the suicide rate for students at university is below that for the population as a whole. Figures show 95 recorded university student suicides for the 12 months to July 2017 in England and Wales, with the rate for young men higher than that for women. Nonetheless, a report published last autumn by the Institute of Public Policy Research showed that the number of students disclosing mental health problems has increased fivefold in a decade.

Many universities are still sleep-walking through this problem and are not allocating sufficient resources to student support and counselling. However, the problem cannot be solved by simply throwing money at it. Universities should promote strong values that turn their institutions into caring communities where students look after each other and where it is recognised that admitting to problems is a sign of strength, not weakness. I do not see many universities taking this approach, without which the problem will not be solved.

ABM: NCUB has been convening our members on an aspect of this very topic: student wellbeing and resilient transitions into the workplace. Judging by university appetite for this work, the desire is clearly there to continue to learn and develop. We can’t overlook businesses’ role in this, either – they have valuable learning to share and, in turn, they can glean much from engaging with university approaches to student mental health and wellbeing.

PR: Jisc was recently visited by James Murray, father of Bristol University student Ben, who tragically took his own life earlier this year. James is clear that data and analytics have a role to play in early identification of students who are struggling. This is not about replacing the expert humans who provide that support – it is about starting a conversation between human beings that otherwise might not occur because students in need, who have got into a dark place, are often the least likely to ask for help.

UK institutions performed well in world university rankings this year. Are we remaining competitive in an international market?

AC: No. The top British universities are holding their own – but even this is under threat. Opening up access to students who are less academically qualified and offering very low contact hours and challenge will eventually threaten recruitment at even the top universities. The Government’s unwelcoming approach will lead to a reduction in the UK share of the international student market. The potential reduction in research funding will eventually damage major projects and will threaten the UK economy through reduced collaboration and patent registration.

The solution? Ease immigration regulations, remain in the EU and provide incentives for bright graduates to stay and develop their entrepreneurial business here.

ABM: Rankings and league tables are a useful metric up to a point, albeit afflicted by reporting lag. Our research is globally competitive in quality, and that seems unlikely to change at short notice. So where can we compete better outside these measurements? Is it in enhancing, rewarding, recognising and catalysing new forms of knowledge exchange? Is it in improving relationships with business, driving investment in research and development, and equipping our graduates for the workplaces of the future? Or is it in rooting universities’ activity in a sense of their own place, physical and human geography?

Each university will have its own strengths, constraints and strategic priorities. I would only humbly suggest that they remain outward-facing and eager to learn from others.

What lessons learned in 2018 will help us prepare for the year ahead?

GW: To stay focused on delivery of high-quality, world-class teaching and research, despite the turbulence around you. Put simply, Keep Calm and Carry On Excelling.

AC: Despite the wealth of possibilities and the rising level of threat, I fear that very few lessons have been learned. The environment is changing rapidly, and the Government and universities should examine their strategies deeply and urgently. The key to future success is for all institutions to be distinctive and relevant to their location. Institutions should listen far more carefully to students about what they want from the university experience, and consider how to prepare them for a continually changing job market where many traditional roles will be replaced by artificial intelligence – and where graduates may have dozens of very different types of employment.

They should look at different and more effective ways to deliver programmes, and consider the portfolio that they offer. In particular, they should encourage entrepreneurial activity. At Regent’s, within a year of graduation, 62% of students start their own businesses or join family businesses.

The Government, meanwhile, should alter its focus on value for money (VfM) as measured by starting salaries and consider more carefully social value for money (SVfM), the movement being taken up by more than 20 universities, which measures the contribution of a university to its local and national economy, cultural and social life.

PR: I think we have learned the crucial importance of data and information – whether at national level, in terms of showing that UK higher education is in rude health despite the negative headlines, or at local level, using data and learning analytics to improve the success of all students. As the fourth industrial revolution progresses, with ‘Higher Education 4.0’ as a key element of that, the importance of AI and the good data that underpins it will become ever more key.

ABM: Expect the unexpected…

Further reading:
Institute of Public Policy Research report on student mental health
NCUB advice on student wellbeing
Jisc guidelines on using learning analytics 
Jisc blog on possibilities offered by ‘Education 4.0’ 
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