Review 2017: David Russell, Chairman, Russell Partnership

A look back at the year that was in higher education: was it a success for the sector?

Rebecca Paddick speaks to David Russell, Founder and Chairman of the Russell Partnership, about the past year in HE, and what could be in store for 2018. 

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

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 student’s university experience.

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

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 Higher Education 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 fueled 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.

3) 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?

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.   

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

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. 

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

  • 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 optimization, experience economy and integrative health.

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

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