Q: In your opinion, what were the major developments in the UK higher education sector in 2015? Has it been a successful year for UK HE?
A: We’ve seen a mixed year for tertiary education in the UK. Hugely damaging government cuts to further education have continued. In Higher Education, we have seen the publishing of the Teaching Excellence Framework and the Green Paper from the government. Both present opportunities and threats for education and for students’ unions. Protections for students in case of institutional failure and sharia compliant loans are both to be welcomed, however the posing of higher fees, questions about students’ unions and talking about the student interest without talking directly to students is cause for concern.
Q: Removing the cap on student numbers is one of the most debated topics in UK higher education. How will this affect the UK HE scene next year?
A: We have always believed that all qualified and eligible applicants should have the chance to study at university and pursue any form of education that they wish. Arbitrary limits should not stop students who have the ability and aspiration to succeed. More places at universities means more opportunities for people from all walks of life to access education, but we have always been clear that the quality of education delivered should not be compromised by these changes to remove the cap on student numbers.
Q: Figures released from HESA earlier this year show that graduate employability is improving. Could universities be doing more to boost prospects for their students?
A: It is great news that graduate employability is improving and shows how important education is for job prospects. It is not only a question of graduate employability that NUS has worked to ensure is on the agenda; but also students in work during their study and the accessibility of paid internships. More still needs to be done on the area of student and graduate employment and we also see that the benefits for society of higher and further education have always been significant yet consistently undermined by the government in suggesting that only private benefit comes from pursuing education.
Q: UK HEIs 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?
A: NUS has significant concerns that immigration policies are threatening to shut out international students. The post-study work visa has been scrapped, students are even being charged to use the NHS and have to pay to register with the police. An NUS survey showed more than 50 per cent of non-EU students think the government is either not welcoming or not at all welcoming towards international students. The government must change its attitude to international students and institutions need to stop viewing them as cash cows.
‘50% of non-EU students think the government is not at all welcoming towards international students’
Q: The Prime Minister has pledged to hold an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership by 2017. Will this impact the HE sector next year? How?
A: The European Union supports our education sector in Britain and puts close to a billion pounds a year into higher education funding and research alone. More than 200,000 students have studied or worked abroad under the Erasmus education programme since its establishment in 1987. Leaving the EU would put our access to HE funding at risk and limit our students’ ability to campaign for global change. That is why I am proud to be a board member of the In Campaign to keep Britain in Europe – to explain the benefits of the EU for education, but also take my union’s message of free movement and migrants’ rights straight to the heart of the ‘In’ campaign.
Q: What lessons have we learned in 2015 that will help us prepare for the year ahead?
A: The proposed scrapping of maintenance grants and the publication of the green paper suggesting the government wants to enhance ‘students’ interests’ has shown us that this government is acting without directly speaking to or consulting with students. The same is true with the Teaching Excellence Framework. The government’s actions continue to make education into even more of a commodity. NUS will continue to challenge the idea of higher education as a ‘market’ which threatens to shut the most disadvantaged and marginalised out of education completely.
Megan Dunn is the National President of the National Union of Students (NUS) W: nus.org.uk