HE must not become the victim of uncertainty

Universities must not be distracted from shaping their futures while waiting for the general election, says Dr Jonathan Nicholls

Following Theresa May’s announcement to hold a snap general election on June 8, a number of issues have come to the fore for the HE sector. On top of the triggering of Article 50, key decisions about the leadership of the Office of Students and the first results of the Teaching Excellence Framework will now be delayed.  Party manifestoes will tantalise with different visions for higher education. Universities must not be distracted from shaping their own futures while waiting for 8 June and the shape of a new government and policies.

The HE sector is still absorbing the implications of the EU referendum vote and the call for a new general election has simply added another layer of uncertainty. Brexit combined with a number of other changes, such as the drive to separate judgements and funding for teaching from that of research and the financial pressures faced by many, is leading to wide spread speculation about the future and stability of the sector.

Keystone legislation for reforming the sector in the Higher Education and Research Bill will now be passed into law before Parliament is prorogued. Last minute exchanges of amendments between the Lords and Commons has seen some significant government concessions. The link between variable fee increases and the results of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been delayed to 2020/21. A significant independent “lessons-learnt review” of TEF will take place in 2019/20 and could have major influence over its future arrangements. Market entry criteria have been further strengthened and appeal mechanisms reinforced.  A Lords’ amendment to remove overseas students from migration figures has however been rejected.

Without knowledgeable representatives making the HE voice heard, the sector is becoming well aware of the friends that it doesn’t have in the House of Commons compared with those in the Lords. 

Yet the fundamental architecture of the reforms remains in place. Moreover, the current House of Commons does not resonate sympathetically with universities  which  leaves them  exposed. Without knowledgeable representatives making the HE voice heard, the sector is becoming well aware of the friends that it doesn’t have in the House of Commons compared with those in the Lords. 

Brexit and the election, coupled with a threat to the flow of students from the EU, leaves the sector faced with a loss of highly-skilled academics and a block to EU-research funding. Universities must look for creative ways to tackle the situation, such as forging more global partnerships, as well as working closer to home to build a better connection with local communities.

An election campaign is the last thing the HE sector needs. Yet, its leaders must now consider ways to continue powering their institutions forward and make the most of whatever Brexit and this election may bring. Brexit research conducted by the firm showed that businesses simply cannot wait for politics to settle or for certain clarifications, and, in the absence of the latter; the best have already taken action to plan forward. 

The additional uncertainty and delays brought by the general election, further clarifies the need for universities to adopt a robust and confident approach for the future.  Creating and implementing a distinctive strategy, refining their purpose and reason for being will be crucial to gaining market cut-through. Stress-testing their strategies against the various Brexit and election scenarios and planning accordingly will ensure that remaining agile to political as well as UK-based societal shifts, will stand HE institutes in good stead for the future.

Above all else, equipping senior leadership teams with the skills to see a strategy through to fruition will ensure the best universities can ride the wave of uncertainty. Institutions will need to adapt and confront change with change.  

Dr Jonathan Nicholls is director of strategy and policy services for education at Shakespeare Martineau

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