The big issues

From Brexit to budgets, Steve Wright quizzes a panel of university experts about some current live issues within HE


  • Maddalaine Ansell, Chief Executive, University Alliance
  • Judith Lamie, Pro V-C for External Affairs, University of Derby
  • Stephen McDonald, Senior Economist, HEFCE
  • Darren Watson, Policy Adviser, Subjects and Skills, HEFCE
  • Steve Hill, External Engagement Director, The Open University
  • Tim Daplyn, Managing Director, Red Brick Research
  • Geoff Webster, Managing Director, CEG Digital

What do you make of the government’s plans to introduce fast-track, two-year degrees – and allow universities to charge the full three-year tuition price for these?  

MA: It’s likely that the majority of students, particularly those coming to university straight from school, will continue to want traditional three- and four-year degrees. Nevertheless, accelerated degrees can be a really attractive option for mature students and those looking to reskill quickly.

We believe that greater flexibility on fees will allow universities to run more accelerated courses and in more subjects, spurring innovative ways of delivering degrees which fit around students’ lives, including those with caring or work commitments. Alliance universities are already delivering successful accelerated degrees, with interest from non-traditional learners who often begin their study later in the year. 

The greater intensity can be a challenge, and student support is vital to success. 

This change alone won’t reverse the dramatic fall in mature and part-time students. Any government serious about creating a strong economy and fair society must enable people to take up higher education throughout their lives.

TD: We’re very optimistic about fast-track degrees, though they clearly won’t suit everyone. Our research shows that current students put in significantly more study hours than those from a decade ago. 

In addition, many are working part-time jobs to try to cover increasing living expenses and build work experience. 

The opportunity to work hard, reduce student living costs by a year, and enter the workplace a year ahead of their peers is appealing to many students. With accelerated degree programmes in place, institutions also have the potential to offer three-year courses including a sandwich year in industry – that could be a real game changer. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that, for those starting university in 2015–16, the government will contribute £10,500 per student once future loan repayments are factored in – and more if the decision to lift the cap on undergraduates means that significantly more students enter the system. Do you see problems on the horizon here?

MA: University Alliance called for the cap on student numbers to be lifted because, in any system of rationing, it is students from disadvantaged backgrounds who miss out. Since the cap was lifted in 2012, the number of people going to university from disadvantaged groups has risen. The IFS has also found that the graduate premium has held up, despite the increase in the number of graduates.

The horizon is not, however, entirely clear. We are beginning to see a fall in applications to university as the number of 18-year-olds in the population declines, alongside a drop in applications from mature learners. This, coupled with a potential squeeze on international students, may mean that the UK produces too few graduates in the future, rather than too many. 

TD: I’ll leave others to comment more: I would just underline that there were political as well as economic objectives to the changed student funding model, and as dramatic as some may say this has been, we’re only beginning to see the start of the long-term changes in how higher education will be delivered and consumed. One thing we know is that these projections will be wrong – but by how much and in what direction? 

The Higher Education Policy Institute estimates that the Home Office’s tougher stance towards overseas students at British universities could cost the country up to £2bn a year. Again, do you predict problems here? 

MA: For the UK to succeed, we need to be open to the world: international students make a huge contribution to the UK economy, as well as enriching the cultural and social life of our universities. A system that seeks – overtly or covertly – to discourage them from coming is not in Britain’s best interests.

A learning environment where UK students get to study alongside individuals from other countries is also crucial to our young people’s success in the global economy. As the UK leaves the EU, removing overseas students from the net migration target would send the right message about Britain being open for business.

GW: Yes – EU and overseas students are clearly getting a message from the UK government that they are not welcome here. EU student numbers to the UK declined by 7% over the past year. Students are receiving the message that working while studying will be hard, and that they will be forced to leave the country not long after graduating.
There is plenty of competition for overseas students, after all. Canada and Australia, in particular, have very benign visa regimes. Even non-Anglophone countries are getting in on the act – Holland is competing actively by offering thousands of English medium higher education degrees. For UK plc, the loss to the HE sector of unregulated tuition fees is compounded by the wider adverse impact on local economies – accommodation, shops, cafes, taxis etcetera.

With accelerated degree programmes in place, institutions also have the potential to offer three-year courses including a sandwich year in industry – that could be a real game changer

HEPI also found that UK higher education could increase revenue from higher fees for foreign students after Britain leaves the EU. How might our overseas (non-EU) student numbers hold up over the coming years? 

MA: Even before the Brexit decision, we were seeing a sharp decline in students from India choosing to study here. 

It is likely that higher fees will deter EU students from studying in the UK. 

A persistent decline in overseas students coming to Britain will have serious consequences. To prevent this, we need to see an overhaul of the student immigration system coupled with a strong message that international students are valued.

JL: In terms of fees for EU students, the problem is actually less about the increase in fees, it’s more about their ability to access loans to support their studying in the UK. Fees will inevitably increase with inflation which I imagine will be the same across the board for all institutions. However, what we will have is a much more strategic set of scholarships that will be available for international students.

The message the UK is giving out is that we aren’t particularly welcoming to international students. We have to do something to reinforce the message that we absolutely value international students and their immense cultural value to UK institutions. We had this situation a few years ago with UK higher education when post-study work was stopped and the impact that had, particularly in the Indian market, was quite dramatic. Will Brexit have that same kind of impact? 

GW: The numbers will fall dramatically unless the government changes its tone and attitude to student visas. To my mind, the issue is more related to UK immigration policy than Brexit per se. There appears to be a dangerously arrogant assumption that ‘everyone wants a UK education’ and will pay through the nose to receive one. In reality there are many other options – Australia, Canada, USA, Holland, France, Sweden. People will vote with their feet, especially if the current rhetoric on government visas doesn’t change.

TD: It is a mixed picture in terms of international students. Our recent international student polling reveals that both EU and non-EU students have some serious concerns about the impact of Brexit. 

Nevertheless, there is some room for optimism, with a majority of students still believing in the value of a UK degree. A majority of international (non-EU) students also believe that they would still choose the UK even after Brexit and that student numbers from their home country will either remain the same or increase in the future.

What we don’t yet know is whether, long term, some institutional brands continue to succeed in attracting overseas students while others lose out. To assess the recruitment risk fully, individual universities will need to know their recruitment profile well – but also understand the strength and independence of their own international brands in relation to the UK as a general HE destination.

University Alliance’s recent report on lifelong learning highlighted that, with people now living longer and having to re-train, there is no clear route for them back into the education system. How can HE help here? 

MA: Working lives have changed drastically over the past two decades. Jobs for life are a thing of the past and career paths are no longer either predictable or linear. Not everyone is in a position to study in their youth – a fair society needs second and third chances. 

Our recent report, Lifelong Learning: Ladder and Lifeline, recognised that our system is currently geared towards 18-year-old, full-time students. It needs to be made more flexible to allow people to benefit from education and training throughout their lives. Its recommendations included creating a centralised UCAS-style system to provide better information, advice and guidance for lifelong learning courses, and re-introducing lifelong learning accounts and more flexible systems of funding to support flexible learning throughout life.

SM: The expansion of higher education in the past two decades means that more graduates could be tempted back to higher education via postgraduate or online courses. The number of part-time postgraduates has been increasing and postgraduate fees are unregulated, so providers have the scope to set prices for courses that would be attractive to older and mature students. The introduction of postgraduate loans may well help to increase demand among older graduates.

The Spring Budget made maintenance loans available for students pursuing technical education at higher levels from 2019/20. Higher-level and degree apprenticeships may become attractive options for mature students. Similarly, part-time maintenance loans, which were also announced, could help to promote equality with full-time undergraduate study and support lifelong learning. 

GW: With uncertainty caused by Brexit hanging over international recruitment, a domestic demographic dip and anxieties over student debt, universities need to innovate and diversify, taking greater market share and opening new markets. Adopting flexible, part-time distance learning is a proven enabler for lifelong learning, both domestically and internationally. This can be applicable to full HE, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Continuing Professional Development (CPD), hobbyists and more. 

SH: We welcome the government’s positive response to calls from ourselves and others for a step change in policy to develop, fund and support initiatives to boost and increase flexible learning opportunities. Economic success in the coming years depends on embedding a lifelong learning culture which rests on three pillars: full-time study (both FE and HE), apprenticeships, and flexible lifelong learning opportunities. 

Part-time higher education and distance learning is a cost-effective way of raising skills levels and training so that students can earn and learn. For instance, those in work currently make up 76% of OU students. The benefits of new skills are felt immediately by the individual as well as their employer (86% of FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff on OU courses).

As the UK leaves the EU, removing overseas students from the net migration target would send the right message about Britain being open for business

Since 2008–09, we’ve witnessed a fall in numbers of part-time students (44%) and mature students (29%). How serious do you find these statistics, and would you suggest any solutions?

GW: The downward trend is about to be reversed, for three main reasons. First, the increasing expansion at UK universities – both research-intensive and teaching institutions – into offering a much bigger range of online higher education awards at undergraduate, postgraduate and CPD level. At CEG Digital within the last 12 months alone we have partnered with Falmouth University, University of London International Programme, Queen Mary University of London and the University of Southampton to help create, build, market and deliver a portfolio of blended learning postgraduate and CPD programmes. 

Second, a step change in technology means that distance-learning programmes for part-time and mature students can now deliver a brilliant, flexible student experience. The courses can be accessible by anyone, anywhere in the world, on desktop, laptop or mobile. 

Third, from September 2016, the UK government has introduced low-interest postgraduate loan funding, which can be accessed for face-to-face or online learning, bringing new opportunities for England-resident EU nationals. 

SH: There has been a dramatic fall in the numbers of part-time HE students in England aged 21 and over from 2007/8 to 2014/15. During this time, nearly 400,000 part-time students have been ‘lost’ from higher education. 

Most initial entrants into part-time HE are aged 31–60. Participation by this age group has declined more steeply than any other, with enrolments falling by nearly 60%. This age group accounts for approximately two thirds of the UK workforce. Yet a prosperous part-time higher education market is central, now more than ever, to address the challenges and opportunities which lie ahead to deliver economic growth and raise national productivity by closing skills gaps, as well as to increase social mobility. 

Action to help address this includes further extension of loan availability to Equivalent and Lower Qualification, or ELQ courses; next step loans to cover more bite-sized chunks of recognised learning, taking away the financial commitment for several years of study; improvements to credit transfer, allowing students to switch institutions and save time and money; and better information, advice and guidance to students, so that individuals can fund, from whatever source, a lifelong ‘Help to learn ISA’ to support education and training when needed.  

TD: Underneath these headline statistics there is an important distinction to make between students with radically different underlying motivations. Personal interest or ‘hobby’ learning has certainly declined dramatically over the past 10 years, but there remains an underlying demand for suitable forms of education to support career progression and re-skilling. Universities need to invest more in understanding these motivations, and reshape traditional education delivery to meet the needs of these students. Many universities have been too focused on their mainstream recruitment challenges to focus on these potential students, but we think this is beginning to change and universities are starting to accept the broader need to evolve models of teaching and learning to support working, part-time and mature students. 

And what part might apprenticeships play in this drive for more flexible and part-time ways to study? 

MA: Degree apprenticeships allow people to earn while they learn, allowing all ages to benefit from an advanced, work-based route. Once the system has bedded in, a broadening of the Apprenticeship Levy to include a wider range of courses would give employers greater flexibility in supporting their workforce to gain new skills or retrain staff for new roles. 

DW: Compared to other G7 nations, the UK has a significant productivity gap, and about 20% of this is felt to be due to shortages in skills. When combined with demographic changes (a fall in the number of 18-year-olds), the need to upskill the existing workforce becomes more and more apparent. Degree apprenticeships can be part of the solution to this problem, with the opportunities they provide for upskilling the existing workforce.

SH: Whilst many institutions are engaging in apprenticeships, it is important that there are clear progression pathways for learners up to the higher level apprenticeships. 

For this, institutions need to work together to support the transition from FE to HE, enabling apprentices and employers to develop the higher skills needed.

We partnered with KPMG, partly because a number of our employer customers were struggling to integrate apprenticeship programmes into their strategic workforce planning. Beyond this there is still a wide lack of awareness about the Levy, and limited knowledge of the practical steps needed to identify an organisation’s skills needs and implement apprenticeships programmes to meet those needs. Working with KMPG, we are able to guide customers through the whole process and provide an end-to-end managed service.

TD: Ah, apprenticeships. We’ve been here before, of course. We’re bullish about the prospect for new level 3 apprenticeships, and our research shows that the concept appeals to both prospective students and employers. 

The real question is whether this time apprenticeships will be taken more seriously by employers. The signs are good, with some major employers actively promoting apprenticeships and the Levy will encourage this, of course. 

The risk for government, for employers, for students and for the scheme as a whole, is largely around quality control. For this reason amongst others, we believe universities can usefully engage with level 3 apprenticeships in these early years, because we expect to see significant private competition in this space – and those institutions majoring on employability and practical skills need to ensure they understand the market and position their brand to take advantage.

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Blended learning – Did we forget about the students?

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Wednesday, June 15, 11AM London BST

Join our expert panel as we look at what blended learning means in 2022 and how universities can meet the needs of ever more diverse student expectations.

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