What’s in a year?

UB editor Rebecca Paddick takes a look back at the year that was in higher education and asks, was it a success for the sector?


  • Professor Aldwyn Cooper, Vice Chancellor, Regent’s University London
  • David Russell, Founder and Chairman of the Russell Partnership
  • Professor Graeme Reid, Strategic Adviser to the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB)
  • Maddalaine Ansell, Chief Executive, University Alliance
  • Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive, Millionplus
  • Phil Richards, Chief Innovation Officer, Jisc

In your opinion, has it been a successful year for UK HE?

Aldwyn Cooper: The past year has delivered a mixed bag for the higher education sector, with different institutions experiencing very different fortunes. The removal of the numbers cap has led to a major loss of high-quality student applications from middle ranking universities through to Russell Group institutions. The latter group appear set on snatching as many undergraduates as possible by reducing their entry qualification levels and this is damaging middle-ranking institutions and the reputations of our top universities. Sadly, bad news seems to have overwhelmed the good during 2016-17, with other honorable mentions going to:

– The complacency of boards accepting unreasonably optimistic five-year plans
– The future for Europe and international students in general
– The difficulties of recruitment and retention of top international academic staff
– The introduction of probationary degree awarding powers

David Russell: UCAS announced that applicants for UK higher education were down 5% for UK students and 7% for EU students. Demand remains high for 18-year-old students, and appears to have dropped for mature students. According to UCAS, this may be driven by increased employment, the higher minimum wage, and more apprenticeship opportunities. This may signal an increased demand for vocational courses within higher education that are practically driven and based around real-world scenarios. However, as enrollment rates for courses such as Nursing drops, we may be witnessing a rejection of low-wage-long-hour public sector jobs, which is rooted in parliamentary influences as opposed to the higher education sector. Within our economic system, there will always be government intervention to influence student enrollment figures and subsequent academic achievements, so we must expect that with the economic uncertainty we are facing some backlash within the higher education sector too. As providers of education and life skills, we must respond with optimism and support through our campus initiatives and continue to encourage, nurture and optimise our students’ university experience.

‘After another year of political surprises, we must never take anything for granted.’ 

Graeme Reid: It has been mixed. Some press coverage has been unhelpful and poorly informed. Brexit has increased the level of uncertainty. But in substantive terms, universities across the UK are rising to new challenges and continuing to deliver wonderful benefits to students, businesses and the wider population of the UK.

Maddalaine Ansell: It has been a time of immense change, but there is lots to be positive about as we look back over 2017. The industrial strategy makes it clear how important universities are to productivity and growth in all parts of the UK. As universities that focus on technical and professional education and applied research, we are crucial to the success of cities and sectors. We also play a major role in social mobility – offering opportunity to people from all parts of society. The first results of the Teaching Excellence Framework have prompted a more nuanced understanding of the different models of excellence in the UK’s higher education system. Alongside this, we’ve seen the continued expansion of new routes into higher education such as degree apprenticeships.

Pam Tatlow: It entirely depends on how you judge success! In terms of managing the ‘red top’ headlines the answer has to be ‘no’. The summer holiday season and the absence of parliamentarians proved an ideal opportunity for febrile stories on VCs’ pay to run and run. However, there is no doubt that this fire was stoked by politicians perhaps surprised by the outcome of an election campaign in which the fees and student support system in England became a major issue. However, bearing in mind the uncertainties caused by Brexit and the ever-changing funding system – in England bursaries were abolished for NHS students staring courses in September – universities throughout the UK have risen to the challenges and exploited new opportunities such as degree apprenticeships, remarkably well.

Phil Richards: By any objective measure, yes, but if one was to look at the headlines, no. There is a great British tradition of knocking success, and I feel our universities have been a victim of that over the past few months. 

Will we really start to see the impact of Brexit on the HE sector next year?

AC: As American billionaire Michael Bloomberg recently commented: “Brexit is the stupidest thing any country has done besides electing Trump.” Nobody can tell yet what the full long-term impact of Brexit on higher education, or anything else, will be at the present moment. However, we are already seeing the early stages of its impact, with student recruitment from the Continental EU down by 6–7%. Important factors include the possible introduction of Tier 4 visa requirements for over 130,000 EU students in the UK, withdrawal of access to the Student Loan Company and a requirement to pay international fees. All could lead to a significant slump in EU students intending to study in the UK. This could prove disastrous, particularly for post-92 institutions. It is further likely that Brexit will result in reduced access to research funding and participation in the Erasmus EU student exchange programme.

DR: Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was triggered on 29 March 2017, meaning the UK is scheduled to leave the European Union on Friday, 29 March 2019. Until the process of exit negotiations has concluded, the long-term impact of Brexit on the HE sector is unknown. Indeed, according to Universities UK, research and higher education will be discussed in the second phase of Brexit negotiations, which are expected to start following the conclusion of the first phase of discussions. The European Council Summit concluded on 20 October 2017 that not enough progress had been made to start the second phase. The delay in the negotiations extends the uncertainties that the higher education sector is facing.

As such, it is doubtful that we will see the true bearings of Brexit on the Higher Education sector during 2018, as the UK government continues exit negotiations which will influence conclusions and subsequent future European relations. Instead, the coming year is likely to be fuelled by developments in dialogue and information transfer that will inform the public on progress. Whilst we can contemplate issues such as research grants, erasmus schemes and student grants, we must remain optimistic that outcomes will be beneficial towards our institutes. Our focus will, I’m sure, continue towards world-class teaching facilities and academic achievements, maintaining excellence in student satisfaction and ensuring the continued positive progression in social mobility.

MA: We’re unlikely to see the full impact of Brexit on HE for some time yet – and much will depend on the final deal for international students and staff and access to EU research networks. One positive is that universities are looking to expand their global partnerships beyond Europe. Earlier this year University Alliance led a mission to strengthen our collaboration with the Australian Technology Network of Universities. As the UK seeks to expand trade links further afield, university networks are a hugely valuable resource. 

GR: Rolling news coverage of Brexit negotiations creates an expectation of steady progress when, in reality, any complex negotiation requires patience. Let’s not disguise the problems. The HE sector – like many other parts of the economy – would welcome clarity and firm reassurance on immigration and nationality as a matter of urgency to reassure researchers, students and business collaborators that the UK remains a welcoming place with vibrant and outward-looking universities. But we may need to be patient. Meanwhile the government’s commitment that UK R&D investment should increase to 2.4% of GDP is enormously welcome.  Its delivery will require a major uplift in business investment in R&D and I look forward to working with the government as they set out their plans – in the forthcoming industrial strategy, perhaps – to attract that additional investment.  

‘It would seem that we have learned very few lessons as a sector and a government in 2016/17.’

PT: The impact is being felt already in increased levels of uncertainty among EU staff working in UK universities and the more cautious responses of those offered employment but currently residing in the EU. This is not just an issue for academics. EU staff work in a wide range of positions vital to the UK higher education sector. If there is no transitional deal and no reciprocal arrangements about student funding, there will undoubtedly be a question-mark about EU student recruitment in 2018, although the real impact may be staved off until 2019.

Decisions about research programmes are needed in the next six months if UK universities are to keep skin in the game and there is the rather large problem of European Social and Investment Funding, worth £14.8bn to the UK between 2014 and 2020. Will the plug be pulled on projects due for funding but not started? Will the UK government’s proposed Social Prosperity Fund replace ESIF monies in full including in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? When will the infrastructure be developed to support this? Universities throughout the UK have been key partners in delivering ESIF projects, UK-EU student mobility and in European research programmes, and none of the big questions have been answered. Conflicting messages from cabinet ministers about the merits and terms of a transitional deal are also causing uncertainty, although in this respect universities are in the same position as other key sectors of the UK economy. 

PR: With so many details of the final Brexit agreement unclear, it is difficult to be definitive. Interestingly, if one looks at the flow of big data into the Janet network, the majority comes from the US and Switzerland (CERN), neither of which in the EU. This serves as a reminder that higher education and research are global activities, and not just EU ones, and I believe our universities and researchers are resilient enough to offset Brexit hurdles by looking beyond EU as needed.

UK institutions performed well in the world university rankings and league tables this year, suggesting we are doing enough to stay competitive in an international market, do you agree with this? What could we be doing better?

AC: The UK’s highly regarded international reputation as a centre for education excellence is severely at risk. Academics are already refusing posts at UK universities, or emigrating, because of the threat of considerably reduced research funding and participation in collaborative projects. Some of our top research universities will continue to perform well, but for many others there will be a steady fall in rankings.

Our international positioning relies on continuous and growing performance in research and the sector needs to avoid complacency at all costs. Universities in other countries are rising up the rankings quickly, particularly in the Far East. Many of these problems can be resolved by effective negotiations with the EU, revisions to the visa system and increasing the quality oversight, not reducing it. While Regent’s University London has a board that has planned carefully for a changing future, there are many concerns at prospects for our sector more widely.

DR: EU applicant figures decreased by 7% to 42,070, however, the number of applicants from other overseas countries is 52,630, similar to 2016. This suggests that social mobility remains strong, and the UK remains as an appealing and stimulating world-class leader in higher education.  

MA: Given the significant benefits which international students bring to the UK and in a world where there is increasing competition from universities overseas, we need to do all we can to welcome new arrivals. In recent years, the inclusion of international students in the net migration target and reduction in post-study work rights have sent the wrong message. We are hoping that the recent request to the MAC Committee to look at the value of international students indicates a sea-change. Initiatives like the GREAT Campaign have helped. 

‘It has been a time of immense change, but there is lots to be positive about as we look back over 2017.’

GR: UK institutions, rightly, have a fantastic reputation globally. It would be surprising if that fell away overnight, so positive performance in the relevant league tables is to be expected – not least because much of the activity began some time ago. Future rankings will be more likely to take the present situation into account; we must ensure we continue to attract the best researchers, academics and students to maintain and grow from past performance. Sufficiently high levels of investment in universities, research and innovation will enable that. 

PT: The major barrier to improving the competitiveness of the UK’s HE sector is the operation of the UKVI visa regime. No amount of tweaking league tables will make up for the impact of these visa regimes and the lack of a post-study work route that is straightforward for graduates and potential employers. The visa regime is limiting the potential of UK universities to trade in the international market. The contribution that the HE sector makes to UK exports should be evidence enough to move to a visa regime that is much more light-touch.

PR: In a PA Consulting survey of VCs in 2015, all VCs asked felt that HE was becoming more global, competitive and digital; but, worryingly, none thought that the UK was taking the global digital lead. Jisc has been working hard to help redress that. While I believe the UK’s strength in offering a traditional experience to the international market will endure, I feel more needs to be done to complement that with a modern digital or blended approach, to sustain in the longer term the contribution that HE makes to the UK economy.

The first round of TEF results were released earlier this year, what impact will this have on the sector in 2018?

AC: The TEF could be very important if it genuinely helps to raise teaching and learning standards. However, will TEF actually be linked to maximum fees now that a fee cap is being introduced, particularly if the suspicion is proved correct that many institutions only entered for financial reasons? Are the metrics truly being used as a proxy for teaching excellence?

Many Russell Group institutions rightly did not perform well in the TEF. Therefore, the metrics are being changed to add weighting to salaries, judged through graduate outcomes while reducing the impact of the National Student Survey. We can expect to see a rapid rise in Russell Group ratings through the use of this bizarre metric. Such a development discriminates against regional universities, the arts, creative industries and the humanities. A similar outcome occurred when ‘value added’ was included in the rankings. Post-92s did very well, leading to de-weighting of value-added so that the Russell Group returned to the top.

DR: The government has introduced the TEF as a method to improve student information transfer and support choices about what and where to study, raising esteem for teaching, recognising and rewarding excellent teaching and better meeting the needs of employers, business, industry and the professions. As students and staff take note of this developing industry framework, we may see a change in the number of applicants and employees to institutions based on new-founded parameters. As such, we may be in a position that encourages us to modify factors that have not previously influenced student and staff recruitment potential. 

MA: The TEF has already encouraged universities to look across all their courses and think how they can make them better – and lead to the best possible outcomes for students. For example, University Alliance has launched the Teaching Excellence Alliance, a programme designed to share best practice and to better understand and champion excellent teaching.

PT: The die has already been cast in terms of the fees regime in England for 2018. There may well be a few universities who resubmit to the TEF in 2018 or submit for the first time. The big issue is whether participation in the TEF will be a condition of registration with the Office for Students for English institutions. Having been assured that the TEF would be voluntary, the suggestion that it will effectively become compulsory may not go down well.

PR: The TEF is not perfect, but it has greatly increased the sector’s focus on teaching and student outcomes, giving greater parity of esteem for those activities alongside research. I am aware of new, substantial strategic investments made by universities graded silver and bronze to address gaps. It will be interesting to see how quickly those investments deliver benefits, and how many universities graded silver and bronze re-enter TEF next year, or stick on their grade for another year as the process evolves and we get closer to a subject grading.

Whilst I was disappointed that analysis by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) of the written submissions for the TEF indicated that Technology Enhanced Learning was not a big component, it was pleasing to see in a recent Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) report that some of the successful appeals against TEF ratings did highlight digital investment. I hope universities will see highlighting appropriate TEL and digital investments as key ingredients of future TEF submissions. 

What lessons have we learned in 2017 that will help us prepare for the year ahead?

AC: It would seem that we have learned very few lessons as a sector and a government in 2016/17. Many universities are not taking sufficient care in their future-proofing. Some institutions are becoming highly geared, but are increasingly illiquid. Revenues are inevitably declining, but spending remains high and this position is not sustainable. The government seems unaware of the severe risks posed by Brexit and the interconnected impact of universities on the UK economy.

The new regulatory framework is more intrusive and interventionist than the current system and will also result in additional costs to providers, both in terms of the Office for Students’ subscription fee, which is currently based on institutional size, and additional charges for information provision and compliance. These funds could be better spent on teaching and learning, research and staff development. We have lobbied with minsters and other politicians, the funding council, UUK and the QAA to suggest better approaches. It seems bizarre that proposals are not focused on strengthening oversight for existing holders of degree-awarding powers, and instead appear geared towards easing regulations for new entrants.

DR: To be cognisant of the economic instability that continues amid Brexit negotiations, and how the outcomes will influence the higher education sector – both in terms of enrollment numbers and university initiatives relating to research, travel and grants. To respond to student demand for courses, and ensure that we are offering the right mix of courses to fulfil our demographic requirements and aspirations. As ever, to focus on our food offers from farm-to-fork, nutritional optimisation, experience economy and integrative health.

“Amidst economic uncertainty, what remains critical is our health…”

MA: Be proactive as well as reactive. We have had to deal with a tremendous amount of policy change in a context made uncertain by Brexit and the political fallout in the UK – and universities have got caught up in some of this. 

GR: Whatever challenges we face, we are not alone. One of the big lessons for me is the similarity between the challenges facing higher education and the challenge facing other sectors such as banking and technology – we all want to attract talented people, nurture international partnerships and be trusted collaborators. I hope the HE sector can find common causes with other sectors and explore how and when to work together. And, as I said last year: don’t lose your sense of humour!

PT: From the election result to the Prime Minister’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference which made some rather costly tweaks to the graduate repayment system and then promised a review, the obvious lesson from 2017 is never be surprised by the latest surprise. 

PR: After another year of political surprises, we must never take anything for granted. The sector’s diversity and resilience will be its best insurance against the further unexpected twists and turns that surely lie ahead in 2018. 

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