Review of the year

The year that was in higher education – was it success for the sector?


  • Professor David Russell, Founder and Chairman, The Russell Partnership
  • Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive, MillionPlus
  • Professor Graeme Reid, Strategic Adviser to the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB)
  • Maddalaine Ansell, Chief Executive, University Alliance

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

David Russell: As ever, the UK has performed well in the world university rankings and league tables – we continue to have three UK universities featuring within the top 10 global elite. While global challenges have faced us all within HE – from Brexit to legislative reform – our national drive and ambition will continue to propel our international reputation.

Pam Tatlow: Absolutely – given the rapid and continued changes to the funding and student support regimes, universities have performed remarkably well. However, despite their innovative approach there are undoubtedly some dark clouds on the horizon. Brexit and the new UK Government’s approach to international students are obvious risks.

Graeme Reid: As always, it has been a mixed picture and it seems pointless to generalise. 

Maddalaine Ansell: Universities are having to demonstrate that they are built on firm foundations as the policy storms rage around them. This foundation is, of course, an excellent academic, professional or technical education that is still the best preparation for the uncertainties of the modern labour market. Students recognise this and have applied for places in record numbers – including more people from disadvantaged backgrounds (although this is still a work in progress). 

Many new types of programmes, such as degree apprenticeships, are now available which should broaden the appeal of a university education further. Universities are growing their research capacity and increasing the numbers of partners – businesses, charities, community groups – with whom they work. The UK is third in the global innovation rankings. But 2016 has also brought a huge amount of uncertainty for universities. The Brexit vote may affect our ability to attract large numbers of EU and international students and to access EU research and innovation partnerships and funding. At home, the government is continuing its wide-ranging reform programme which will bring in new regulatory and funding structures. This is designed to open the market to new providers some of whom won’t have the civic mission of many current universities. There will also be a new Teaching Excellence Framework and significant changes to the next Research Excellence Framework competition – the impact of both of these
is yet to be seen.

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

David: It is unlikely that the true impact of Brexit will be felt until final negotiations between the EU and the UK have been solidified and implemented. Until then, the focus should be to continue driving our higher education sector towards world-class teaching and academic achievements, maintaining excellence in student satisfaction and ensuring the positive progression in social mobility that will ensure overseas students continue to view the UK as a progressive and welcoming nation.

Pam: The UK Government and the governments in the devolved nations have provided a guarantee of funding and access to the student loan scheme for EU students entering university in 2017–18 and some guarantees around research funding until 2020. 

It is not acceptable for the government to decide its negotiating position for higher education or any other sector of the economy behind closed doors. MillionPlus has published a policy paper, Trade in HE services and research – negotiating Brexit. This qualifies current trade with the EU including in the different regions and nations of the UK and sets out a series of recommendations for Ministers. 

Graeme: The Prime Minister has committed to ‘ensuring a positive outcome for UK science as we exit the EU’. This has already been followed by a research funding commitment from the Treasury and a student funding commitment from Jo Johnson. These reassurances are enormously welcome and go as far – maybe even further – as we could expect from any government. But they could so easily be undermined by the strange, uninformed, stubborn rhetoric from government on immigration. This sends unfriendly signals to talented people around the world who could bring so much to the UK if only we could persuade them to study and pursue careers here. But more than that, it even unsettles accomplished researchers already established in the UK. It won’t take much to fix this silly position if the government acts soon. But the longer they leave it the more difficult it will be to re-build confidence in the global community that plays such important roles in UK universities and research.

Q. 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?

Pam: The university rankings and league tables are commercial products dominated by research investment which do not provide anything like an accurate picture of the full range of activities in which UK universities are engaged. Notwithstanding their place in the rankings, UK universities have a global reputation for high quality and all UK universities are quality assured. 

However, the Home Office’s visa regime and threats from the new government to reduce international student numbers are undoubtedly taking their toll on the UK’s position in the international market. For example, as a direct result of the visa regimes that are being applied, the UK is no longer regarded as the destination of choice by Indian students. 

The UK is now losing proportionate market share to our competitor nations and we could be doing so much better if the Home Office and 10 Downing Street treated UK HE as an important and successful export market that required their full support rather than as a backdoor means of reducing immigration numbers.

Graeme: League tables usually reflect activities that began some years ago. These are often underpinned by funding and career decisions taken years before that. So while I welcome the UK’s high rankings, I don’t read much into them when looking to the future. That said, I think the UK is a terrific place to study at university or do world-class research and I believe we shall continue to attract wonderfully talented students and academics in the years ahead (as long as government stops scaring them away!).

Maddalaine: UK institutions are by and large excellent. However, we had a considerable historical head start in growing our higher education sector and other countries – particularly those who are investing heavily in universities, research and innovation – will make up ground. We need to increase our investment in research and innovation, make sure we distribute funding competitively so excellence is funded wherever it is found and make the most of the creation of UK Research & Innovation to build new partnerships with emerging research powers across the world. On the teaching side, we need to sort out our immigration policy so that international students feel welcome in the UK. Aside from the soft power benefits we gain when they go home, speak well of us and trade with people they met here, our universities must continue to offer an international environment to our domestic students – so that they can become the globalised graduates that employers find so attractive.

The university rankings and league tables are commercial products dominated by research investment which do not provide anything like an accurate picture of the full range of activities in which UK universities are engaged

Q. Will the HE and Research Bill, released earlier this year, have a big impact in 2017?

David: Whilst the HE and Research Bill aims to support the government’s mission to boost social mobility, opportunity and enhance the competitiveness and productivity of the UK economy, there are concerns amid experts and academics alike in regards to the potential threat that the new laws would pose on university autonomy and academic freedom. 

The Bill delivers opportunity for innovative and specialist providers of education to set up, award degrees and compete alongside existing institutions – this change is motivated by the government’s desire to drive diversity, innovation, choice and standards across the HE sector. Secured alongside this change is the formation of the Office for Students, who will have the power to override university Royal Charters, remove the right of institutions to award degrees or even to call themselves universities – all without parliamentary scrutiny. 

Graeme: If we assume that the Bill is passed into law before summer 2017 then the first substantial changes could indeed appear that year. But I suspect that 2017 will be largely a year of transition as the contents of the HE and Research Act are implemented through organisational and regulatory changes. My current guess is that 2018 will be the year when most of the changes are introduced formally.

Maddalaine: In many ways, the HE and Research Bill is tidying up policy that has already been enacted. Universities are already more dependent on tuition fees from students than on grants from government. Many new providers have already entered the UK higher education market. The big opportunity is that the new UKRI will have a much stronger voice domestically and overseas than our existing research councils and will be better at promoting inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research. 

As long as Innovate UK retains its business-facing focus, its inclusion in UKRI should promote collaboration between the research base and business and the interchange of academic and business staff. The big risk is that UKRI and OfS don’t work well together – creating problems for universities that want to integrate their research, innovation and teaching activities with each strand benefiting the others. The Bill also needs to give explicit recognition to OfS’ role in ensuring the success of the sector as a whole – not just regulating individual institutions. It needs to recognise that there are significant public benefits to higher education beyond those received by students and employers – some of which are better achieved by collaboration than competition. It also needs to recognise that promoting access and participation is not just about making sure each university has good outreach and retention programmes but that there is a university within reach of all potential students – not all students are able to move town in order to study.

Q. What lessons have we learned in 2016 that will help us prepare for the year ahead?

David: Social mobility and international integration of students is now, more important than ever. In what seems to be an ever-dividing world, we must ensure our students know the value of connection, diversity, tolerance and collaboration. 

We must continually drive ambition, innovation and passion within our universities, amid turbulent international issues and legislative reform. 

Pam: Institutional autonomy, government investment and visa regimes which support international students and staff are the foundations of success in UK higher education and research. We need more of all of them going forward. 


1. Brexit is important but so are lots of other things – there are lots of terrific students to teach, lots of great businesses to collaborate with and lots of important research problems to address.

2. Don’t hold a referendum without understanding
the consequences.

3. Don’t lose your sense of humour.

Maddalaine: The most painful lesson was that the public at large may not share our view of ourselves as forces for good within the UK’s national infrastructure. Universities have more to do to demonstrate that they contribute to national, regional and local prosperity – and that they offer opportunity to all and are not a closed club for a privileged elite. 

The devolution agenda and the focus on place within the government’s industrial strategy provide an opportunity for us to do this. 

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