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UK needs to raise its game

David Phoenix explains that the UK needs to increase its share of the international market in order to not fall behind competitors

What lessons have we learned over the last academic year that will help us prepare for the year ahead?

Theres no room for complacency and plenty of reasons to model more than one landscape going forward. 

What were the major developments during the last academic year? Has it been a successful year for UK HE?

Performance in the research excellence framework was outstanding across the sector, although there were perhaps no surprises that in England a very conventional approach was adopted to the distribution of funding. Overall, universities have done well with student satisfaction levels and graduate employment also increased. However, no-one should forget that for all the successes, the participation of part-time and mature students has declined dramatically since 2012. This is a challenge for government, not just universities.

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 this year?

Admissions and recruitment have always been highly competitive and so in one sense nothing has changed. Some universities have responded by issuing many more unconditional offers much earlier in the admissions cycle. How far this will impact on the end result remains to be seen. Much more interesting is the commitment of the Prime Minister and the new Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, to double the rate of progression of young people from low participation neighbourhoods. Modern universities, like London South Bank, will want to help ensure that this ambition is realised. 

It has been reported that grants given to students could be cut as part of savings the Department for Business needs to make, what do you think of this, and what impact will it have on UK HE overall?

Grants will be replaced by loans from 2016. This proposal will impact on English students studying at English universities and those who live in England but study in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is good that funding is still provided to ensure students can access university education, (the loans are not paid back until after graduation and once salaries of £21000 are being made) but with fees also due to rise by inflation from 2017, I remain worried that the balance between state and individual has gone too far. This move will disappoint students, but may also create a false economy if the debt level deters applicants. 

UK universities are constantly having to compete with international institutions to stay at the top of the world rankings, and attract the best students from all over the world. Are we on the right track to stay competitive, or are there potential pitfalls ahead?

All government departments should be pulling together to ensure that the UK increases its share of the international market and that we do not fall further behind our competitors. It is also a mistake to think this is just about universities at the top of the world rankings. All UK universities trade globally; talented and entrepreneurial students throughout the world want to study the wide variety of high quality professional, technical and business-focused courses that are offered in the UK. These students bring great benefits both in terms of culture, finance and for the UK future soft power, by establishing links to future leaders.

It is good that funding is still provided to ensure students can access university education, but with fees also due to rise by inflation from 2017, I remain worried that the balance between state and individual has gone too far.’

The government has pledged to reform the student visa system, but universities have previously warned that the drive to reduce net migration is harming recruitment of international students. What can universities do to help push their agenda forward?

There is also a real risk that the governments ambitions around the domestic agenda will be undermined by Home Office requirements which focus on institutional visa compliance and very rigid inspection regimes as a means of reducing migration numbers to the exclusion of everything else. Universities need to ensure that they show strong compliance and keep reiterating the benefits to the UK of this major success story.

The Prime Minister has pledged to hold an in-out referendum on the UKs EU membership by 2017. What does this mean for UK HE?

At the end of the day, it is likely that the referendum vote will be decided on wider issues notwithstanding the benefits to universities and students of the UK remaining in the EU. However, universities do partner with other institutions in Europe; student and staff mobility and research funding from Europe are all bonuses for the UK. My main concern would be the loss of EU student and staff exchange opportunities, given we now operate in a global market.

What are the biggest challenges facing the sector for the next year?

In England we shall be responding to the governments agenda about teaching quality, but there will also be a comprehensive spending review. Modern universities will continue to be agile and to innovate but one of the key things to remember is never to be surprised. Universities must ensure they are modelling different scenarios and looking for new opportunities created by change –  for example by the digital agenda or some of the exciting prospects available through work with industry on degree level apprenticeships.

David Phoenix is Vice-Chancellor for London South Bank University, and Chair of Million+

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