Review of the year 2015

A look back at the year that was in higher education, was it a success for the sector?


  • Lynn Senior, Dean of College of Education at the University of Derby
  • Professor Zahir Irani, Dean of the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences (CBASS) at Brunel University London
  • Richard Smith, Managing Director of Operations, Unite Students
  • Megan Dunn, national president, National Union of Students
  • Robert Moyle, Operations Director UK, Campus Living Villages

➙In your opinion, what were the major developments in the UK higher education sector in 2015? Has it been a successful year for UK HE?

Lynn Senior: For me the major developments have been the introduction of higher apprenticeships and vocational degrees, which should open up the sector for a broader skills-based education.

Professor Zahir Irani: Bringing Universities within the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) now means that students have consumer rights. Universities and other higher education providers that don’t meet their obligations to students may be in breach of consumer protection law. Many institutions are now waiting for case law to see legal interpretations of the CMA in higher education. 

Richard Smith: The most significant development in UK higher education in 2015 has, without a doubt, been the removal of the cap on student numbers. We currently work closely with more than 60 universities. During their planning for higher student numbers in 2015/16 they collectively increased their demand for accommodation from us.

A key success of the year for UK HE has been the increasingly large number of international students choosing to study here in Britain, undeterred by our country’s rigorous approach to student visa applications. There is an indisputable value of international students to the UK. Universities UK estimates they generate more than £2.2bn for the economy. 

Megan Dunn: In HE, we have seen the publishing of the Teaching Excellence Framework and the Green Paper from the government. Both present opportunities and threats for education and for students’ unions. Protections for students in case of institutional failure and sharia compliant loans are both to be welcomed, however, the posing of higher fees, questions about students’ unions and talking about the student interest without talking directly to students is cause for concern. 

‘What we are seeing is an HE sector which must continually adapt to policy changes and the emergence of an ever more discerning student ‘customer”

Robert Moyle: The removal of the tuition fee cap has been a big change in the sector, creating a demand-driven system, and the impact has yet to emerge. What we are seeing is an HE sector which must continually adapt to policy changes and the emergence of an ever more discerning student ‘customer’. This is already changing how the sector works and creating positive experiences for students is now key to success for universities.

➙Removing the cap on student numbers is one of the most debated topics in UK higher education. How will this affect the UK HE scene next year? 

Lynn Senior: Potential students will be shopping around more. This was seen this year at clearing when students were prepared to take their time when making a decision and were very obviously making comparisons between offers they were receiving. HEI will need to ensure that they remain competitive on all levels. 

Professor Zahir Irani: The big question is whether the TEF will facilitate a more liberal view of student fees that ultimately results in the fee cap being removed. The trick will be to ensure universities build on and don’t erode the implications OFFA has had in promoting widening participation. Nevertheless, it still won’t remove the issue of students having to pay significant levels of debt back when they start to earn above the threshold.

Richard Smith: Students now have a greater choice of university. I believe this will give a greater diversity of students the confidence to apply for and take up university places. This is something we anticipate understanding more about when we carry out our annual survey of all 46,000 students who live with us. 

‘The big question is whether the TEF will facilitate a more liberal view of student fees that ultimately results in the fee cap being removed’

Megan Dunn: We have always believed that all qualified and eligible applicants should have the chance to study at university and pursue any form of education that they wish. Arbitrary limits should not stop students who have the ability and aspiration to succeed. More places at universities means more opportunities for people from all walks of life to access education, but we have always been clear that the quality of education delivered should not be compromised by these changes to remove the cap on student numbers.

Robert Moyle: As a global business we have been watching the effect on markets in our other territories. Uncapping was implemented in Australia in 2012 and a recent review suggested that it created growth in online and off-campus learning. As an accommodation provider, Campus Living Villages (CLV) maintains a flexible model which enables us to move with the market. We are already offering short-term contracts to students throughout the year in many of our sites and this is something we plan to continue.

➙Figures released from HESA earlier this year show that graduate employability is improving. Could universities be doing more to boost prospects for their students?

Lynn Senior: Yes and many universities are with internships and progression onto PG programmes.

Professor Zahir Irani: Employability skills are a given now and no longer significantly differentiate one institution from another. I think the next big push has to be in preparing students for employment through equipping them with graduate attributes and behaviours, as more and more will have multiple careers during their lifetime and/or portfolio-type experiences. Universities need to do more to prepare students for assessment centres, especially those that come from less privileged backgrounds or selective educational experiences. 

Richard Smith: Unite was founded in 1991 with the goal of finding a solution to the shortage of accommodation for students at the expanding University of the West of England. Almost 25 years later, we now offer far more than solutions to bed provision to students and universities in almost 30 cities. This September, we launched a digital platform called Student Life Hub which is available to every student who lives with us.  It opens up automatically with wifi access in our buildings and, of course, runs on mobile devices. All of the content on there is created to help students master life skills, from doing their laundry to locating and making friends. The hub can help them build up their CVs by getting involved in voluntary work and organising events. All of these skills set the students up not just for work but for life. 

Megan Dunn: It is great news that graduate employability is improving and shows how important education is for job prospects. Students have always told us that employment is an incredibly important part of their study – and that they have long had concerns and frustrations over their future prospects. It is not only a question of graduate employability that NUS has worked to ensure is on the agenda; but also students in work during their study and the accessibility of paid internships. More still needs to be done on the area of student and graduate employment and we also see that the benefits for society of higher and further education have always been significantly yet consistently undermined by the government in suggesting that only private benefit comes from pursuing education.

Robert Moyle: The competitive jobs market and the high expectations from employers around graduate talent mean that everyone in the sector needs to play a role in ensuring that the next generation of graduates have the best chance of finding a rewarding career when they leave university.

There is a real opportunity for universities and commercial partners, like CLV, to work together to provide students with openings for desirable work experience and a productive stepping stone into their career. We support students by offering employment in our village, internships and our recently launched Graduate Scheme, which began in September 2015. We couldn’t have achieved this without the support of our partners and we were pleased to welcome two new recruits into the business from the University of Salford. We are keen to expand this scheme with more of our partners.

➙UK HEIs performed well in the world university rankings and league tables this year, suggesting we are doing enough to stay competitive in an international market, do you agree with this? What could we be doing better?

Lynn Senior: I don’t think we promote ourselves as well as some of the international universities and we need to be doing more to show the world how good we really are.

Professor Zahir Irani: A UK education is still very much world-class and an aspiration for many around the world but clearly others are getting better and in some cases beating us. We need to reach out and be more open to learning from their experiences and accept that we don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. 

Richard Smith: We have gathered evidence, from surveying our 8,000 London students, that whilst the reputation of the university and course are their key reasons for coming to the city they are also eager to have a ‘London experience’. I think we could work more closely with all of our universities on helping students make the most out of that ‘bucket list’ item – to experience life in England or Scotland. The United Kingdom fascinates the world. 

Megan Dunn: NUS has significant concerns that immigration policies are threatening to shut out international students. The post-study work visa has been scrapped, students are even being charged to use the NHS and have to pay to register with the police. An NUS survey showed more than 50% of non-EU students think the government is either not welcoming or not at all welcoming towards international students. The government must change its attitude to international students and institutions need to stop viewing them as cash cows.

➙The Prime Minister has pledged to hold an in/out referendum on the UK’s EU membership by 2017. Will this impact the HE sector next year? How?

Lynn Senior: I’m not sure it will have much impact, maybe with some programmes that have Erasmus and other EU links but not in terms of recruitment.

Professor Zahir Irani: All this uncertainty is destabilising and simply adds uncertainty into university management and strategy. Opting out would mean that overnight EU students become international for fee-paying purposes and it is likely to have far reaching implications in the way we access H2020 research monies. For sure, this decision will come at a cost to HE during the run-up and should the referendum go in favour of withdrawal from the EU. I just hope that the consequences are well publicised and shared across the electorate before any decisions are made.

Richard Smith: There is real value to our HE sector and wider economy from international students. Universities UK estimate there are currently 125,000 EU students at British universities. It is not yet clear how Britain’s relationship with the EU could change and so impact is impossible to guess at. 

‘The European Union supports our education sector in Britain and puts close to a billion pounds a year into higher education funding and research alone’

Megan Dunn: The European Union supports our education sector in Britain and puts close to a billion pounds a year into higher education funding and research alone. Today’s students live in a smaller world, where their lives are global in nature. More than 200,000 students have studied or worked abroad under the Erasmus education programme since its establishment in 1987. Leaving the EU would put our access to HE funding at risk and limit our students’ ability to campaign for global change. That is why I am proud to be a board member of the ‘In’ campaign to keep Britain in Europe – to explain the benefits of the EU for education, but also take my union’s message of free movement and migrants’ rights straight to the heart of the ‘In’ campaign.

➙What lessons have we learned in 2015 that will help us prepare for the year ahead?

Lynn Senior: Students are becoming consumers, they are prepared to shop around for the best university and option.

Professor Zahir Irani: As the sector continues to be unstable and underpinned by uncertainty, there is little point spending time developing a long term strategy. Universities need to be nimble and responsive to changes that they have no control over and be innovative in the way they generate and deliver their own change but always remembering that we are ultimately a ‘people business.’ 

Richard Smith: Students and universities want more from us than the 46,000 beds we provide across England and Wales. They want supportive home environments. We have become increasingly aware of this need and our work in the future is about further developing our homes and relationships to help increase the successes for this and generations of students to come.

Megan Dunn: The proposed scrapping of maintenance grants and the publication of the green paper suggesting the government wants to enhance ‘students’ interests’ has shown us that this government is acting without directly speaking to or consulting with students. The same is true with the Teaching Excellence Framework. The government’s actions continue to make education into even more of a commodity. Students are not consumers – this is a lesson we need to learn in the year ahead. NUS will continue to challenge the idea of higher education as a ‘market’ which threatens to shut the most disadvantaged and marginalised out of education completely.

Read another University Business roundtable here.

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