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Behind the HE headlines is one key question – the purpose of universities

The past week’s higher education news demonstrates that there are certain expectations of universities that policymakers, HE leaders and the Augar review are expected to address, says Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of the Engineering Professors’ Council and Chief Executive of outreach organisation Push .

30 VCs sign new Civic University Agreement

Leaders of thirty universities have signed a Civic University Agreement, reaffirming their institution's commitment to their local communities by pledging to put the economy and quality of life in their home towns and cities at the top of their list of priorities.

How to improve the student experience -- ask the students themselves

Jenny Shaw , Student Experience Director at Unite Students, draws lessons on the higher education sector's efforts to improve the student experience from a week of HE news and views.

HEi-think: Why universities should support two year degrees

From this September, students will be able to opt to study an accelerated two year degree, as opposed to a traditional three year course. Professor Malcolm Todd, Provost (Academic) at the University of Derby, discusses why universities should consider the change in legislation and look to offer accelerated degrees.

Volatility at home and Brexit spell uncertainty for UK universities, warns Moody's

UK universities face significant uncertainty stemming from domestic policy volatility and the impact of Brexit, according to a report by the leading credit rating agency Moody's.

The agency's Public Sector Europe said the sector also faced challenges because of rising costs and increasing competition for students and staff.

The report, Higher Education - UK - 2017 Results: Stable financial performance clouded by policy and Brexit uncertainty, is an update to the markets and does not constitute a rating action.

"UK universities are currently facing a range of challenges, including rising cost pressures and unfavourable demographics for student recruitment," said Matt Fawcett, the report's author. "Despite the challenges, universities rated by Moody's posted stable financial performance in 2017, with an increase in aggregate turnover and median operating cash flow margin remaining stable."

Depending on the terms of the final deal, Brexit remains a major concern for universities in terms of research funding; attracting and retaining top EU talent and; student recruitment both from the EU and internationally.

Over the last few years, tuition fees have been the key driver of growth in turnover. However, the government's recent announcement of a tuition fee freeze for the 2018-19 academic year dampened the outlook for tuition fee growth and created uncertainty around how fees will be structured post-2019, according to the report.

Overall cost pressures are being driven by rising expenditure on staff, particularly increasing pension obligations. Total staff costs for UK universities increased by 5 per cent between 2016 and 2017 and accounted for the largest expenditure -55 per cent of all operating costs.

To sustain the level of capital investment needed to attract students and staff, universities are increasingly financing capital expenditure through external borrowing as levels of publicly funded capital grants reduce, the report said.

Universities rated by Moody’s – Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton, Leeds, Cardiff, Liverpool, Keele and De Montfort, in Leicester - have consistently outperformed the sector over the last five years with the number of students enrolled at rising by 4 per cent in 2017. This compares with growth of 2 per cent for the sector as a whole.

The company said that the strong performance for rated universities reflects their high rankings in university league tables and their firmly established reputations, both of which help to attract students from the UK and overseas.

jegas / 123RF
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