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Conceptions of what is excellent in higher education are starting to change

Professor Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, outlines strategies adopted by NTU that are boosting social mobility and which helped it win the inaugural Guardian University of the Year award, a gong he believes shows how notions of excellence in HE are changing.

A house divided? Growing divisions and inequalities in HE

Mike Boxall, who has thirty years' experience as a consultant and commentator on strategic developments in higher and further education, finds evidence in recent news of growing and worrying divisions within UK higher education.

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Higher vocational STEM education can lead to better earnings than degrees, study finds

Earnings of people achieving higher-level vocational qualifications in STEM subjects can exceed those of people who pursued the same subjects at a university level, a study has concluded.

A house divided? Growing divisions and inequalities in HE

Mike Boxall, who has thirty years' experience as a consultant and commentator on strategic developments in higher and further education, finds evidence in recent news of growing and worrying divisions within UK higher education.


Away from the drawn-out car crash of Brexit, a number of recent reports highlight growing divisions and inequalities within our higher education system which may well prove more important to the future of our universities than membership (or not) of the European Union.

The most public fissures are between the sector’s insular self-regard and its increasingly battered public reputation. Over recent weeks we have seen universities lambasted in the press and by ministers for alleged shady practices ranging from pressure-selling recruitment to devalued degree awards to "fat cat" salaries, and even to spending on art works. The latest strategic guidance from DfE to the OfS  reads like a hit list of perceived shortcomings to be clamped down upon through a mix of reviews, regulations, and delisting miscreants. Rather than engaging with these criticisms, the response of vice-chancellors (for example in PA Consulting’s survey report) has been to discount them as political grand-standing. Such insularity may not look very clever as we move towards the post-Augar debate and the comprehensive spending review, when universities will need all the friends they can get.

More serious than bad PR – which can quickly change – are the widening gaps in experiences and outcomes between different classes of students. The latest release of Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data  trumpet the headline figure that (on average) male graduates can expect to earn up to 29 per cent more than their non-graduate peers by the time they reach 30, and women graduates up to 50 per cent more. But as the IFS reports, most of this premium can be attributed to pre-university advantages of parental incomes and better schooling; the earnings premium for less advantaged students is much lower. Further analysis from the Office for Students (OfS) finds that students from disadvantaged backgrounds – including those from the lower POLAR quintiles, BAME students and care leavers – fare significantly worse than their more privileged peers in access, completion rates, degree awards and subsequent employment. 

The concentration of socially-advantaged students in Russell Group institutions, which have signally failed to widen their recruitment pools, is producing a two-tier university system, already reflected in the differential earnings (and hence loan repayment profiles) of their graduates. In a timely piece for THE, Lord David Willetts, a former universities minister, warns against the dangers of using LEO data and loan repayment profiles to tilt funding policies. This could, he observes, have the perverse effect of penalising those institutions doing most to recruit and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, generating a two-tier system based on student advantage.

You could argue that this is already happening. The latest report on university finances from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows over 30 universities recording falling enrolments and financial deficits, mostly among low-tariff institutions in deprived towns. More recent analysis from the OfS of university business forecasts reinforces this picture, with two-thirds of projected surpluses concentrated among Russell Group institutions and the remainder mostly projecting break-even or worse. The spectre of institutional failures looms ever larger, with the OfS reiterating that they are not in the business of bailing out failing providers and urging greater realism in institutional plans. However, there was a noticeable softening in the tone of comments from Michael Barber, the hawkish chair of the OfS. Moody’s, the credit rating agency, reiterated their view that government would find ways of intervening to protect ailing institutions, given the adverse social and political implications of closures. 

While outright failures may be unlikely, we can expect to see further disruptions at the vocational (employment-focused) end of the HE spectrum, where universities are increasingly pitched into competition with FE colleges, apprenticeship programmes and private providers to meet growing demands for higher-level technical and professional pathways. An interesting blog from the CEO of the MillionPlus grouping of modern universities appears to envisage some reinvention of polytechnic provision. Such a reinvention could represent a fitting resolution of the failings of the current one-size-fits-all university system.

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