Don’t rest on your laurels

Gordon Slaven warns that despite a good past performance, the HE sector must continue to develop to maintain its high-quality

What lessons have we learned over the last academic year that will help us prepare for the year ahead? 

I think the fundamental lesson is that change is constant, and the past is merely a useful guide for what the future may be like.

What were the major developments during the last academic year? Has it been a successful year for UK HE? 

 The British Council focuses on the internationalisation of HE, and in it has been a successful year in a number of ways:

– The number of students taking up Erasmus+ placements is at an all-time high, and more generally outward mobility is beginning to become an increasingly mainstream part of the UK university experience.
– The number of international students coming to the UK grew by 3% last year, which is an increase in growth on the previous year.
– International teaching, mobility and research partnerships are growing, with the new government-funded Newton Fund sparking a greater interest internationally for engaging in joint research with the UK.

However, among the sunny spells, there are some dark clouds. While our international student numbers rose by 3% last year, the numbers in our main competitor nations grew by between 8%-11%. Numbers of students from South Asia continue to fall, while they are constant or rising in other host countries. Uncertainty over the future of the Euro and the UK’s future in Europe is something else which may impact the UK HE sector over the coming years.  

It has been reported that grants given to students could be cut as part of savings the Department for Business needs to make, what do you think of this, and what impact will it have on UK HE overall?

The recent change of maintenance grants to loans may impact on the diversity of incoming students, but probably not in the coming year. It is worth remembering that many predicted the rise in UK tuition fees would result in fewer applicants from people with low-income backgrounds, but that hasn’t proved to be the case.

UK universities are constantly having to compete with international institutions to stay at the top of the world rankings, and attract the best students from all over the world. Are we on the right track to stay competitive, or are there potential pitfalls ahead?

The world of international higher education, including mobility trends, delivery mechanisms and research funding mechanisms is changing rapidly. The UK is currently in a strong position, and very well networked internationally. However, as they used to say in advertisements for financial services ‘past performance does not determine future value’. Continued development and investment in the sector is necessary for maintaining both our research pre-eminence and our high quality of teaching. There are a lot of rising powers in international higher education, and just because we are currently at the top table, does not mean we will continue to stay there unless we continue to invest in remaining at the cutting edge of innovation, both in higher education itself, and in research to address global issues.

The government has pledged to “reform the student visa system,” but universities have previously warned that the drive to reduce net migration is harming recruitment of international students. What can universities do to help push their agenda forward? 

A number of parliamentary groups have recommended that international students are removed from the net migration figures, and the HE sector is lobbying for this to change. There is currently no indication that this change will happen. There’s growing evidence, from India in particular, that the perceived ‘difficulty’ of the UK visa regime, and the limited opportunities for post-study work have contributed to the significant decline (more than 50% over 3 years) in students from India.

The Prime Minister has pledged to hold an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership by 2017. What does this mean for UK HE?

I do not think anyone yet knows what this will mean. Universities UK already have a campaign, ‘Universities for Europe’, to lobby for the UK to remain within the European Union. In the short term, there will be a level of uncertainty around the referendum which may affect longer term planning for HE. This will be alleviated if the UK votes to remain in the EU, and Europe’s relationship with the UK continues, even if under a changed dispensation… If the decision is to leave, then the uncertainty will continue for a while longer, with implications both for European research funding for UK HE, and a change in status for international students from the EU, which may impact on numbers.   

What are the biggest challenges facing the sector for the next year?

The biggest challenges facing UK HE are the same as those facing the rest of us:
Domestic, European and international economic issues, including issues around large-scale migration;
Security issues, both domestic and international;
And political issues around the future constitutional dispensation in the UK; our future (or not) in Europe; and the changing balance of power in the world.

Gordon Slaven is Head of Higher Education and Education Services at the British Council.

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