What lies ahead

University Business asks a panel of higher education professionals: what are the major challenges across the sector for 2015?

Gordon Slaven, Head of Higher Education, British Council

✥Continuing to remain attractive to international students around the world and competitive in the global market. Being able to encourage greater outward mobility of UK students and researchers to institutions overseas, enabling them to gain new perspectives, build international links, and improve their own employability. The British Council has managed the EU’s Erasmus programme since 2007, and we’ve recorded a tremendous growth in the numbers of students participating. This demonstrates how the next generation are beginning to recognise the importance of an international experience. Coping with the rapid changes in funding that are likely to come in to effect once the government lifts the cap on UK student numbers in 2015.

Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive, million+

✥All political parties must set out their plans for funding in advance of the May 2015 general election. There has been a lot of loose talk about the funding system which is currently bedevilled by ‘smoke and mirrors’ accountancy rules. This undermines what is really needed – a proper and transparent debate about the long-term benefits of investment by the state in higher education. Too often this has been sidelined as a result of a focus on short-term costs and on the RAB charge (an estimate of the amount of student loans that will not be re-paid).

Teaching funding should not be seen in a silo. Equally important is future investment in science and innovation. In September million+ published ‘The Innovation Challenge’ which outlined the extent to which the UK lags behind other OECD countries in terms of taxpayer investment in research. However an uplift in science investment is only one part of the solution. Government policies have resulted in the hyper-concentration of research funding in a few institutions and this is hindering innovation. Nor does this policy address the obvious imbalances in regional growth. We are arguing strongly for more research funding but not more of the same in terms of its distribution. We need a guarantee that all universities will be funded for research but there should also be a new stream of funding for translational research. This would add up to a much more robust strategy to promote growth by research.

Politicians should also address the decline in postgraduate and part-time study. The majority of students study part-time for a postgraduate qualification when they are older. Our ‘Smarter Regions Smarter Britain’ report sets out a strong case for the government to invest in 50,000 additional postgraduate places linked to part-time courses with a professional, industry or public service focus.

Megan Dunn, NUS Vice President (higher education)

✥The unhealthy effects of marketisation on the sector. Competition between universities has driven up fee prices, limited choice of course and mode of provision for students, and failed to improve the quality of teaching and learning. In addition, the sector will need to think very carefully about the future of quality assurance, as there are many risks to a public procurement process that will need to be managed.

The disgraceful treatment of international students by the Home Office. Despite the fact that international students contribute £12.5bn to the UK economy, the Home Office continues to treat international students like second-class citizens. As a result of a spate of revocations of Tier 4 licenses, there are currently thousands of genuine students who have paid huge sums of money for their education facing being forced out of the country. As well as this being terrible on an individual level, this creates a significant challenge for the sector, as students are increasingly deciding not to study here as they know that the British Government does not welcome them.

The postgraduate funding crisis. Whilst there has been some progress made, there are still no lasting commitments from government as to how we solve the issue of access to postgraduate study and the continued spiralling upwards of fees in an unregulated market will only accentuate the problems that students are facing.

Sam Jones, Head of Comms, University Alliance

✥It is clear that we are in the midst of some pretty major changes 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,” – an often overlooked precursor to the decision announced last year to lift the cap on student numbers.

With the growth that we are likely to see following the lifting of the cap on student numbers comes the question of quality, specifically, 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. University Alliance published the report ‘How do we ensure quality in an expanding higher education system’, which considers what kind of quality assurance measures would be fit for purpose in a more complex new world of expanding higher education. It states that while the current system is based on a set of solid principles, the quality assurance system must also evolve.

One of the major challenges for the sector will be how it responds to the opportunities and threats of increased marketisation – 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.

We still don’t have an HE Bill to manage the regulatory issues of increased marketisation. 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 should be a key priority afterwards.

Alistair Jarvis, Director of Communications and External Relations, Universities UK

✥As we have a general election on the horizon, there are three priority areas that an incoming government needs to address. Research and innovation policy – closing the gap between the UK’s investment in research and innovation and that of its major international competitors.

International students and immigration policy – ensuring that government and universities work together to attract qualified international students and staff to the UK. This should include removing international students from the net migration targets and introducing most post-study work opportunities.

Student funding – developing a political consensus for a sustainable student funding system for the long-term. This needs to balance three important needs: delivering value for money for students; being financially sustainable for government; and providing stable funding that allows universities to deliver an outstanding learning experience. However the student funding system develops, we must ensure that higher education remains accessible to all. It is important that suitably qualified students can access higher education regardless of financial circumstances.

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