Change is constant

UB Editor Rebecca Paddick asks some of the sector’s experts, what are the key obstacles that lie ahead as the new academic year begins?


  • Professor Eunice Simmons, Pro Vice-Chancellor Academic, Nottingham Trent University
  • Professor Maurits van Rooijen, Chief Executive of the London School of Business and Finance
  • Gordon Slaven, Head of Higher Education and Education Services, British Council
  • David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University and Chair of Million+
  • Professor Zahir Irani, Dean of the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences and Head of Brunel Business School

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

Eunice Simmons: The messages from government about cost savings and efficiency are being heard loud and clear and universities need to be on the front foot in these discussions – particularly in demonstrating how they use tuition fees wisely. There is no doubt that the application of consumer legislation to HE will present some challenges for current university systems and require professional services and academic staff to jointly review their approach to the student journey and the overall student experience.

Maurits van Rooijen: Last year showed that universities more than ever need to balance academic aspirations and business realities. For research-led institutions the business reality is that they should have access to significant endowment funds if their success is to last so they should shift attention to enlarging such funds mainly from donations. For institutions that are more tuition led they have to be more market focused, faster, more agile and competitive in order to support their academic aspirations or even to survive. Institutions need to be much more explicit what their realistic academic aspirations and strengths really are and what therefore the related priorities are on the business side because significant public funding in the medium term cannot be taken for granted. 

Gordon Slaven: 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.

David Phoenix: There’s no room for complacency and plenty of reasons to model more than one landscape going forward.

Zahir Irani: We learned that we need to work harder than ever to convert students into firm acceptances. We can’t rely on insurance offer holders and clearing to ensure we have the student numbers we need. The old stability has gone.

âž™ Removing the cap on student numbers is one of the most debated topics in UK higher education. How will this affect the UK HE scene this year?

Eunice Simmons: An individual institution’s undergraduate recruitment plans may well be disrupted by the removal of the cap on student numbers and the subsequent behaviour of competitors. Competition for good quality entrants will be particularly marked between mid-ranking institutions and there is the distinct possibility that universities will target applicants for subjects strategically important to their mission such as STEM.

‘An individual institution’s undergraduate recruitment plans may well be disrupted by the removal of the cap on student numbers and the subsequent behaviour of competitors.’

David Phoenix: Admissions and recruitment have always been highly competitive and so in one sense nothing has changed. Some universities have responded by issuing many more unconditional offers much earlier in the admissions cycle. How far this will impact on the end result remains to be seen. Much more interesting is the commitment of the Prime Minister and the new Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, to double the rate of progression of young people from low participation neighbourhoods. Modern universities like London South Bank will want to help ensure that this ambition is realised.

Zahir Irani: Institutions will be conducting portfolio reviews and deciding what is no longer economical to deliver to small numbers and which offerings are simply too costly. Decisions will then be made about how to improve efficiencies or whether to withdraw certain provisions due to strategic re-positioning.

âž™ 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?

Maurits van Rooijen: The Chancellor’s announcement in his Budget on student grants is a realistic acknowledgement of the financial constraints facing the national HE budget. As student numbers go up grants become an ever bigger burden for taxpayers and divert money away from other areas of higher education. Ultimately, I don’t expect this policy to have a negative impact on the sector as a whole. 

Gordon Slaven: 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. 

David Phoenix: Grants will be replaced by loans from 2016. This proposal will impact on English students studying at English universities and those who live in England but study in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is good that funding is still provided to ensure students can access university education (the loans are not paid back until after graduation and once salaries of £21,000 are being made) but with fees also due to rise by inflation from 2017 I remain worried that the balance between state and individual has gone too far. This move will disappoint students but may also likely to be a false economy if the debt level deters applicants.

Zahir Irani: Students are already under significant pressure in terms of ensuring they are doing well on their courses, and socially, from the need to feel they’re making the most of their student experience, the campus facilities and extracurricular activities of all kinds. Inevitably it’ll mean more students looking to take on paid employment, which has the potential to change the nature of the student experiences and attitudes to what university life should be like. 

âž™ 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?

Eunice Simmons: Although there is still demand for UK HE from international students, the UK Government’s unwelcoming stance is in stark contrast to the approach being taken by other English speaking countries keen to increase international numbers. On a visit to universities in Canada last month with the Leadership Foundation I saw strategies in place guaranteeing generous scholarships and importantly, work placements for overseas students as part of Canada’s drive to attract and retain new, well-educated citizens. How much longer will UK HE be able to compete with these approaches? 

‘Many British universities risk falling behind in the global race unless they tune in to the importance of developing and harnessing the skills that matter to businesses or allow alumni to release their entrepreneurial ability.’

Maurits van Rooijen: I think the debate around ‘best students’ is actually the biggest pitfall. So many UK universities are becoming obsessed by fighting for the best academic talent that they are in fact neglecting other skills that are crucial to both universities and employers – such as leadership and entrepreneurial potential. Yes, for some research-led institutions academic talent is crucial. But many British universities risk falling behind in the global race unless they tune in to the importance of developing and harnessing the skills that matter to businesses or allow alumni to release their entrepreneurial ability.

Gordon Slaven: 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

Zahir Irani: The world is getting smaller as most countries deliver some or all of their curriculum in English. The challenge for UK universities will be around how you develop global citizens and encourage home students to undertake volunteering, internships or placements overseas. Many British students are disadvantaged by only speaking English, so there needs to be a real push in schools and at university to develop language skills. I am, however, encouraged by the way in which employability skills are now considered the norm and embedded in most student experiences.

The next step is to ensure these attributes and behaviors are nurtured and given real opportunity to be enhanced within volunteering, internships and during placement opportunities.

âž™ 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? 

Eunice Simmons: Universities need to continue to lobby government to evidence the harm the current visa regime is doing to this valuable and value-rich business. There is also a significant likelihood that new measures will impact on the recruitment of international staff – from post-doctorals to professors – which will greatly harm the UK sector. 

Maurits van Rooijen: The case needs to be made that migration isn’t just a Home Office issue – it’s an economic issue that departments like BIS should be concerned about. And that case should be made not just by sub-sector interest groups but by the sector as a whole in partnership with other sectors to which the issue is crucial (which is practically every business sector!). There is a huge risk that the government could get its reforms wrong either by tightening restrictions on groups of students who provide huge benefit to the UK economy or by making the system overcomplicated.

‘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.’

Gordon Slaven: 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 will change. There is 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 three years) in students from India.

David Phoenix: There is a real risk that the government’s ambitions around the domestic agenda will be undermined by Home Office requirements which focus on institutional visa compliance and very rigid inspection regimes as a means of reducing migration numbers to the exclusion of everything else. Universities need to ensure though that they show strong compliance and keep reiterating the benefits to the UK of this major success story

Zahir Irani: I think UUK is working hard to stress the value that overseas students bring to the UK, not only in financial terms but also in enriching the study and research environment. I think more promotion and awareness-raising of these benefits to the electorate through professional societies and through open days will be important and help change views so that parents can see the value of their children studying alongside others from all over the world. At the end of the day, government policy can – and should be – shaped by the electorate.

âž™ 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?

Eunice Simmons: This may lead to a surge in interest in university places from Continental European students, keen to access the loans system before anything changes. The UK benefits from research funding via the EU and no doubt there will be concerns about this.

Maurits van Rooijen: The EU works well for the educational sector in the UK. We can attract talent from across the EU, whether staff or students, without Home Office interference. We offer successful mobility opportunities and have embraced sensible harmonisation like the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System. We benefit greatly from research funding. This is not Brussels driven, it is very much the result of support from within the sector, showing the European project at its best. Whatever the outcome of a referendum, we shall need to safeguard all this.

Gordon Slaven: 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 the UK’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.  

David Phoenix: At the end of the day, it is likely that the referendum vote will be decided on wider issues notwithstanding the benefits to universities and students of the UK remaining in the EU. However, universities do partner with other institutions in Europe and student and staff mobility and research funding from Europe are all bonuses for the UK. My main concern would be loss of EU student and staff exchange opportunities given we now operate in a global market.

Zahir Irani: In the wake of a vote to leave the EU, the financial implications could be significant. EU students would become classed as overseas for fees and immigration purposes, making the UK a less attractive option. A €2bn cut EU research budget is planned and future funding would be limited. Access to Horizon 2020 grants and partnerships/consortium will become pressured. 

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

Eunice Simmons: All universities will be engaging with the newly proposed Teaching Excellence Framework – and no doubt hoping that the metrics chosen will reflect well on their institution. If their teaching quality meets the yet to be determined requirements of the TEF it will enable them to pursue inflationary fee increases from 2017. It is to be hoped that a broad view of success will be taken to include, for example, evidence of employer involvement and satisfaction. 

‘In England we shall be responding to the government’s agenda about teaching quality but there will also be a comprehensive spending review.’

Maurits van Rooijen: Different institutions face very different challenges, but the overall biggest challenge remains that we have more students willing and able to study than actual places.

Gordon Slaven: 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.

David Phoenix: In England we shall be responding to the government’s agenda about teaching quality but there will also be a comprehensive spending review. Modern universities will continue to be agile and to innovate – but one of the keys is never to be surprised – ensure you are modelling different scenarios and looking for new opportunities created by change – for example by the digital agenda or some of the exciting prospects available through work with industry on degree-level apprenticeships.

Zahir Irani: Fundamentally, the timing and content of the comprehensive spending review. Campus building costs are now inflating at a time when students continue to look for higher standards of facilities. The USS changes make the sector less attractive to early career academics and could act as a possible push to more senior staff. HE will need to take on more competition from apprenticeships and the offers of two-year degrees. And in the current climate, showing how we are playing our part in preventing extremism on campus.

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