Review 2017: Prof. Aldwyn Cooper, Regent’s University London

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

Rebecca Paddick speaks to Professor Aldwyn Cooper, Vice Chancellor of Regent’s University London about the past year in HE, and what may be in store for 2018. 

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

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

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

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.

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?

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. 

As American billionaire Michael Bloomberg recently commented: “Brexit is the stupidest thing any country has done besides electing Trump.” – Prof. Aldwyn Cooper

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

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.

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

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.

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