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The state of HE in 2014

Sam Jones, Head of Communications at University Alliance, gives his take on what will happen over the next few months in higher education

I once got caught out in a meeting where I mixed some metaphors and ended up saying something was a moveable beast rather than a moveable feast. I definitely won’t make that mistake again. However, when it comes to higher education, I feel I may have inadvertently coined an apt phrase for the sector that day given it could be thought of as a slow-moving beast.

While there are definitely parts of the sector that are slower and more entrenched in tradition than others, there are many universities (such as the ones I work with) that are very familiar and comfortable with change. And I think we are in the midst of some pretty major change in the HE sector as we continue to see the steady transformation of UK higher education into a more dynamic market. The BIS White Paper, Students at the heart of the system, made this change its core objective: “We will move away from the tight number controls that constrain individual higher education institutions, so that there is a more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow and where all universities must offer a good student experience to remain competitive.” 

One of the major challenges for the sector will be how it breaks with the slow-moving-beast image to respond to the opportunities and threats of increased marketization – both domestic and global. This is so much more than thinking about how institutions engage with digital, through MOOCs or other opportunities presented by the internet of things. It is also more than simply thinking about institutional growth. 

Removing the student numbers cap is a great move towards creating opportunities for those currently locked out of higher education because of this arbitrary limit. But not all institutions will want to grow. Some will focus on creating an excellent student experience over and above growing their student numbers. Others, including alternative providers and new entrants to the market, will want to grow their undergraduate numbers. With that growth comes the question of quality. This leads to the next big challenge for the sector, which is what kind of quality assurance system is going to be fit for the more complex new world of expanding higher education. Quality assurance does, and should, sit within a broader framework for regulation of providers. We still don’t have an HE Bill to manage the regulatory issues of increased marketization. Indeed, there remain legislative gaps in terms of the ability of government and HEFCE to manage any potential market failures. We definitely won’t see any movement on this before the election and there is no clarity as to what might happen afterwards.

It is pretty unlikely we will get huge amounts of detail on higher education generally in election manifestos. Best-case scenario is a set of principles that recognize the important role universities play in driving economic growth and a healthy society. Worst-case scenario would be a set of rigid policies that put the long-term sustainability of the sector in jeopardy.

However, I think the more significant issue facing the UK is the current discourse and focus on immigration, and not just the impact this has on international students. At a time when Britain should be considering its place in the world and how we secure that in the future, it is deeply worrying that the focus should be so narrowly and internally focused. This brings me to the third and final key challenge facing the sector: universities need to ensure that they remain globally focused despite the current immigration debate and the view of the world that springs from. At University Alliance we talk about our members being locally rooted and globally connected. This will become increasingly important. Graduates are now entering a global jobs market or going on to set up businesses with a global reach. So universities need to be considering how they are preparing graduates not just for employment in the UK but globally and the employability agenda will need to shift to much more of an international focus.

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