University challenged

Rebecca Paddick asks some of the sector’s experts, how will HE tackle the big issues in 2016?

Professor Zahir Irani, Dean of the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences (CBASS) at Brunel University London:

There are many challenges facing the sector but the following are probably a number that keep colleagues awake at night:
●Ensuring Universities maintain their optimal size and disciplinary shape.
●Challenges around tier 4 compliance and international student monitoring.
●TEF – what might it mean locally (within the institution), nationally (as a comparator, indicator of possible fee change and potential league table measure) and internationally (in terms of student recruitment and reputation).

Richard Smith, Managing Director of Operations, Unite Students:

A mix of changes will compel universities to put even greater attention on supporting their students. These include the imminent Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), end of maintenance grants and any potential changes to student visa applications. Issues that lead to students dropping out of their course, such as financial difficulties or stress, are often first obvious in their accommodation. We feel we have a lot to contribute to helping universities help their students stay on track so they can go on to make the most out of their university years.

Paul Feldman, chief executive, Jisc:

While 2015 may have been the year in which UK Government set its stall for the biggest transformation of the sector since 1992, the enormous task we now face is delivering its vision. With the higher education green paper, expectations are higher than ever, at the same time as the comprehensive spending review sees budgets being squeezed. When it’s not a case of one of the other, but both, how do you strike the balance between excellent student experiences and world-leading research, with finding new efficiencies?

Technology clearly has a key role to play in enabling higher education to respond to some of these challenges in terms of transforming teaching, promoting employability, broadening access and securing value for money. Further, technology can open up new opportunities for collaboration and innovation that the UK so desperately needs in order to remain a global leader.

When universities are able to unlock the benefits of digital technologies they put themselves in the best position to meet and exceed the expectations of students and staff, create a fertile research environment and keep the UK competitive. In our endeavour to be a world-class powerhouse of digital support and transformation to the teaching and research communities, our objective in the year ahead is to help them do just that.

Professor Lynn Dobbs, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Roehampton:

Without a doubt the government’s Green Paper on higher education will have a significant influence on the sector in 2016 and beyond. The Teaching Excellence Framework and the provision of an accelerated route to degree awarding powers for alternative providers will ensure the HE environment remains both fluid and unpredictable.

As a university that has a focus on both excellence in teaching as well as world-class research, Roehampton welcomes the TEF process and the recognition of the importance of high-quality teaching. There is no doubt the results could be disruptive, and the importance of doing well cannot be overstated.

The Teaching Excellence Framework and the provision of an accelerated route to degree awarding powers for alternative providers will ensure the HE environment remains both fluid and unpredictable

On the other hand, the results of the Nurse Review do provide a degree of stability for research, and in particular, the declared intention to maintain the dual-support system. The challenge will be to invest to ensure we continue to provide the best possible teaching at the same time as making sure that academic staff have the room to continue to produce excellent research.

David Nuttie, CACI’s Higher Education Sales Manager:

Because of funding changes in recent years, accuracy in financial planning will be more pressing than ever before in the year ahead. It’s vital that universities are able to make cost-effective decisions to ensure their medium- to long-term future.

We see lots of universities embarking on substantial investments to their facilities in order to attract fee-paying students, but these investments come at a big risk. Investing in declining and costly courses will, in the long run, result in uneconomical courses being offered and facilities not fit for purpose.

As for the short term, there are also pressing decisions to be made. For instance, one way universities are attempting to increase their income is by attracting foreign students. To do so, however, they have to maintain relationships with agencies and universities overseas, which takes up a lot of financial resources. Striking the right balance here will only get more challenging.

The vision universities should have is that when a student enrolls, or enquires about a course, they should be able to build financial plans straight away based on projected income and expenditure. Only by using the latest available technologies will this vision be achievable. 

Professor Rebecca Bunting, Vice-Chancellor of Buckinghamshire New University:

The challenges to the university sector in 2016 can be summed up in a short phrase: the emergence of an increasingly competitive market. The governments recent Green Paper proposes to make it easier for private providers to award their own degrees and become universities, thereby creating a more diverse sector and more student choice.

There will be new measures of the quality of teaching, which will bring both reputational and financial benefits to institutions meeting certain standards, granting them permission to charge more than the current maximum of £9,000 for undergraduate programmes. Again, a differentiated sector is implied, with student choice driving up standards, and with consumer style protections for students in the form of a new regulator, the Office for Students.

The historic success of the UK in attracting international students is now challenged by competition from universities across the world

The Green Paper sets out expectations about the role of universities in developing the graduate skills essential to economic success, as well as our role in social mobility through widening access to higher education. And of course we operate in a global community.

The historic success of the UK in attracting international students is now challenged by competition from universities across the world. So all in all, the landscape of higher education is set to change radically. The coming year will see the beginnings and wider implications of that process.

Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath:

2016 is going to be another year of huge change in the sector with the HE Green Paper, the impact of the Nurse Review, the introduction of TEF and PG loans just some of the challenges we face. Our priority will be to continue to deliver research and teaching excellence in the context of these radical changes to the strategic context and regulatory environment of the UK HE sector.

Whilst both the changes we can plan for, and the unexpected events we can’t, will continue to demand attention we must retain an intense focus on the enduring purpose of universities. To create and disseminate knowledge to the benefit of the students we educate, and through the impact of our research and our partnerships with industry, provide value to the economy and society as a whole.

As a Vice-Chancellor, I will be seeking to ensure my University has the financial strength, enhanced infrastructure and, most critically, the quality of people needed to be well positioned to address the national and international opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

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