Q: In your opinion, what were the major developments in the UK higher education sector in 2015? Has it been a successful year for UK HE?
A: Bringing Universities within the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) now means that students have consumer rights. Universities and other higher education providers that don’t meet their obligations to students may be in breach of consumer protection law. Many institutions are now waiting for case law to see legal interpretations of the CMA in Higher Education.
Q: 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 next year?
A: The big question is whether the TEF will facilitate a more liberal view of student fees that ultimately results in the fee cap being removed. The trick will be to ensure Universities build on and don’t erode the implications OFFA has had in promoting widening participation. Nevertheless, it still won’t remove the issue of students having to pay significant levels of debt back when they start to earn above the threshold.
Q: Figures released from HESA earlier this year show that graduate employability is improving. Could universities be doing more to boost prospects for their students?
A: Employability skills are a given now and no longer significantly differentiate one institution from another. I think the next big push has to be in preparing students for employment through equipping them with graduate attributes and behaviors, as more and more will have multiple careers during their lifetime and/or portfolio type experiences. Universities need to do more to prepare students for assessment centres, especially those that come from less privileged backgrounds or selective educational experiences.
Q: UK HEIs 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?
A: A UK education is still very much world class and an aspiration for many around the world but clearly others are getting better and in some cases beating us. We need to reach out and be more open to learning from their experiences and accept that we don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.
Q: The Prime Minister has pledged to hold an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership by 2017. Will this impact the HE sector next year? How?
A: All this uncertainty is destabilizing and simply adds uncertainty into University management and strategy. Opting out would mean that overnight EU students become international for fee paying purposes and it is likely to have far reaching implications in the way we access H2020 research monies. For sure, this decision will come at a cost to HE during the run up and should the referendum go in favour of withdrawal from the EU. I just hope that the consequences are well publicized and shared across the electorate before any decisions are made.
Q: What lessons have we learned in 2015 that will help us prepare for the year ahead?
A: As the sector continues to be unstable and underpinned by uncertainty, there is little point spending time developing a long term strategy. Universities need to be nimble and responsive to changes that they have no control over and be innovative in the way they generate and deliver their own change but always remembering that we are ultimately a ‘people-business.’
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the sector for the next year?
A: There are many challenges facing the sector but the following are probably a number that keep colleagues awake at night:
- Ensuring Universities maintain their optimal size and disciplinary shape.
- Challenges around tier 4 compliance and international student monitoring.
- TEF – what might it mean locally (within the institution), nationally (as a comparator, indicator of possible fee change and potential league table measure) and internationally (in terms of student recruitment and reputation)
Professor Zahir Irani is the Dean of the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences at Brunel University London.