Review 2017: James Pitman, Study Group

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

Rebecca Paddick speaks to James Pitman, Managing Director of Development for UK and Europe for Study Group, about the past year in HE, and what could be in store for 2018. 

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

We’ve seen strong recruitment numbers and record numbers of applications to our campus ISCs. Our higher education system is still regarded as the gold standard globally. The government’s admittance that the International Passenger Survey is not a suitable source of exit data was also a major victory as we saw reported numbers of ‘overstayers’ drop to just a mere fraction of original estimates.  The MAC inquiry into International Students is also a major success and may lead to a change in the PM’s attitude to them – let’s hope so.

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

We’ve already seen Brexit make a difference: UCAS reported in July that the number of EU students planning to study in the UK has fallen by 5%. I’d suspect the long-term numbers of EU students studying in the UK depend on the government making loan access available. Interestingly policy and economics house London Economics suggests that even though EU enrolments may drop 30%, the increase in fees could see a net gain of £187m for UK universities.  

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?

The top UK universities did perform well but just over half the UK institutions that appear in the top 200 of this year’s Times Higher Education global league table have fallen in the rankings. When you combine this with increasing competition from Asia and Europe then it paints a worrying picture. There is an ongoing debate on investment into UK universities and research funding, but from our perspective, the most effective short term measure the government could take would be to reintroduce the post study work visa. UKCISA reported in April that the number of Indian students coming to the UK to study has fallen 44% in the last five years. This correlates with then Home Secretary Theresa May’s decision to scrap the post study work visa in 2012. UK universities need to be able to tap into a global talent pool for both staff and students to maintain their global rankings.

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

Among the elite Russell Group universities, just eight out of 21 institutions that took part in the government’s “teaching excellence framework” (TEF) were awarded the gold rating, however the future of TEF and its linkage to drivers in the sector and indeed international student perceptions of HE in the UK is, as yet, unclear. Universities UK revealed in March that non-EU students coming to the UK to study now generate more than £25 billion for the economy and provide a significant boost to regional jobs and local businesses. If we’re to maintain, and indeed grow our share of the global HE market, the government needs to ensure universities receive the support and funding they require. 

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

That international students, who come to the UK as education tourists to study and better themselves, do not have any significant effect on net migration figures. The sooner the ONS and Home Office comes to a sector recognised conclusion on what constitutes an ‘overstayer’, the better and then the sector and government can together put in place new policies to grow this critical export sector for everyone’s benefit. Higher education is the UK’s greatest ‘hidden’ export; as we part with Europe we need to ensure that efforts to bolster the sector are prioritised.

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