What lies ahead?

UB Editor, Rebecca Paddick asks, what are the major challenges across the sector for 2017, and how can we prepare for them?

Professor Angus Laing, Dean, Lancaster University Management School

The Higher Education Bill has the potential to impact considerably on the business school sector. Whilst very much part of the HE scene and affected by national ranking instruments such as the NSS and DHEL scores, business schools are governed by additional reputational drivers in the form of international postgraduate rankings and league tables such as those in the Financial Times and Economist.

Uneven impact

The HE Bill delivers uneven impact in that for providers further down these business school-specific rankings, and even more so the unranked schools, there will be considerable challenges as the TEF rankings will be a surrogate quality indicator for postgraduate students. By contrast for the higher ranked business schools the impact of TEF rankings will be counterbalanced by the sector-specific rankings and there may also be considerable opportunities arising from other aspects of the HE Bill. 

This is reflective of the wider HE sector of course, but as the new TEF ranking won’t have any effect on Business School rankings such as the FT, the new teaching excellence standards will have little effect on raising the profile of business schools lower down the rankings in the eyes of prospective international and postgraduate students.

Providers lower down the rankings who struggle to compete on the basis of rankings and associated positioning may find they have to both reduce costs and enhance quality, at least in terms of TEF measures to compete, which could lead to natural discussions of how they are organised. 

I think with such pressures we may well see the formalisation of networks and chains of business school providers as competition heats up. There is little doubt that new private providers will compete on the basis of cost advantage over existing providers who will have to explore radical options to survive. This will raise interesting questions for VCs in contemplating the future for their business schools.

The opportunities for higher ranked providers lie in the ability to combine a strong showing in these business school rankings with a gold teaching standard to further boost reputation and market share.  This ‘extra’ badge of reputation will no doubt help UK business schools in the top tier navigate the increasingly challenging recruitment market due to the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Business schools have, perhaps unsurprisingly, proven themselves to be adept at exploiting accreditation and other award schemes to promote themselves. 

The more interesting question is the potential role which highly ranked business schools may play in the consolidation of the sector through engaging with the formation of networks or chains of schools, and the opportunities to work with private investors to develop alternative models of provision.

The problem of Brexit…

11% of UK business school students come from the EU, so all business schools will be seeking ways to try to overcome the self-inflicted wounds of Brexit. Even highly ranked schools will face increasing challenges in managing the perception, which is ultimately what matters, that the UK is an unwelcoming country. We should not forget that alongside rankings and the advantage endowed by English, the very openness of the British economy to globalisation, innovation and enterprise is part of what has attracted students to Britain’s business schools. Brexit, or at least the prospect of a closed/hard Brexit undermines that attraction. Consequently there will likely be an ever greater focus of attention on activities outside the UK. Already the UK’s business schools are well represented globally with branch and franchise operations. With Brexit we can anticipate increasing development of branch operations more closely connected to the home campus, being far more part of the core operation than has been the case to date. The connectivity arising from technology, the opportunity to access non-UK research funding, as well as scope to connect with global businesses offers attractive opportunities for business schools to operate as more globally integrated operations in responding to Brexit. 

Andrew Robinson, Director of Higher Education EMEA at Cengage Learning

The Teaching Excellence Framework – which will see the government monitoring and assessing the quality of teaching and learning in UK universities – will have a big impact on university funding, so it’s vital that HEIs are prepared. In the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework – Technical Consultation for Year 2, the three defining aspects of quality for which UK universities are to be monitored and assessed include:

Teaching Quality – Teaching practices which provide an appropriate level of contact, stimulation and challenge, encourage student effort and engagement, and which are effective in developing the knowledge, skills, attributes and work readiness of students.

Learning Environment – The wider context for teaching which includes the effectiveness of resources designed to support learning, maximise completion, and aid the development of independent study and research skills. This may include learning spaces, use of technology, work experience, extra-curricular activities and opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction.

Student outcomes and learning gain – The educational and employment outcomes of graduates and the gains made by students from a range of different backgrounds.

Those universities deemed ‘excellent’ in all areas will be rewarded with the right to increase undergraduate fees in line with inflation, currently sitting at 2%.

Mock TEF studies are now complete but the final metrics to measure TEF are yet to be finalised. So how should universities prepare?

My advice to HEIs would be to review investment in digital learning solutions which typically include assessment and feedback tools as well as data and analytics on student performance. Such solutions provide teaching staff with clear insight into student progress and equip them with the information they need to deliver highly targeted teaching.

Digital learning can also support students by allowing them to revisit specific concepts that may not have been fully understood during a lesson. Content can be mapped to specific courses and personalised to include the lecturers’ own materials. This enriches the learning experience and frees up teaching staff, allowing them to spend more quality time with students.

The HEPI Student Academic Survey concluded that although the student experience is still a positive one, students as consumers are becoming more demanding. They are looking for evidence of value for money and are prepared to put in the effort themselves as long as they feel this is matched by being offered an involved experience with high-quality teaching staff who continuously develop their skills, and appropriate levels of contact hours for the subject they choose. Digital learning solutions can go a long way to helping HEIs achieve this.

Dr. Nicos Nicolaou, CEO, UNICAF

Following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, UK universities have seen a sharp drop in applications from EU students. This has left many vice–chancellors and academics concerned, over not only student numbers but also the overall status of UK universities on the international stage. In order to maintain their student numbers and worldwide reputation British universities must look to emerging markets, and in particular sub-Saharan Africa, for expansion.

With recent figures published by UCAS reporting a 9% drop in EU admissions to UK universities it is clear that UK higher education institutions (HEIs) must begin to consider other options when it comes to recruitment.  

Data from UNESCO currently places the UK as the second most popular destination for international students. However, the UK’s recent decision to leave the EU is likely to make students – even those from outside Europe – worried that studying in the UK could be an unreliable option and increase the attraction of choosing a university in another country, particularly the US and Australia which are also high in the UNESCO rankings. 

This perception poses a threat not only to the intake of individual universities but to the British brand of higher education as a whole.

These conditions make it even more important for UK HEIs to examine their international agendas and consider emerging markets for expansion. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular is an emerging economy with an increasingly educated population whose public sector cannot keep up with the current demand for tertiary level education. At the current rate of growth in HE, the African public sector would need to build 10 universities a week, each with the capacity for 10,000 students, for the next 12 years if it were to meet demand. This leaves many African students unable to gain the qualifications they need to pursue careers with multinationals and has the knock-on effect of hindering development as companies are unable to fill vacancies with highly qualified African students.

Many UK universities have already taken the initiative by setting up campuses across the Far and Middle East; if they are to make up for the current shortfall in students from the EU, Africa too must be considered as a setting where students are eager to access a high-quality British education. Either through setting up campuses or going down the more financially viable route of partnering with private providers to offer an online or blended degree option, it is time UK universities looked to Africa as a highly viable market for HE provision.

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