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Emerging HE policies highlight new political landscape

Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.

New year presents HE sector with fresh challenges

Just as most people were returning to work and study after the Christmas break, non-continuation rates (or ‘dropout rates’, to use the sub-editors’ vernacular) seemed to dominate the HE news headlines in much of the national media, including the Daily Telegraph and others.

It is an issue for the whole sector and every type of provider; all universities need to examine how they are executing the responsibilities they have for their students.

This begins before they commence undergraduate or postgraduate study; it’s in the messaging of our outreach and access work, as well as our marketing. Are we, as a sector, clear enough about the challenges, demands and opportunities of higher education study? Do we have the right levels of academic support to help students deal with the curriculum?

The prominence of mental health issues in higher education – for both staff and students – this week reminds us that investment in professional wellbeing services is critical too. At Derby, we have adopted a holistic approach to optimising the student experience, and part of that ensures that our academic and welfare support are closely linked.

Flexibility is also an issue. How many universities can offer online learning options or transfer schemes, like the Midlands Credit Compass? By enabling students to have the possibility of switching courses and universities with ease to find the best fit for them, we may also be able to reduce non-continuation.

Of course, we need to recognise that each decision taken by a student to cease their studies is unique to them. It may be that finance, work or caring responsibilities are behind the choice. Whatever the cause, a better appreciation of the realities of our students’ lives and working closely with our student unions will help us to fully understand and respond to the changing demands that each of them is facing.

HE policy website Wonkhe this week posed the excellent question ‘are universities really prepared to grow in the next decade’?

The article notes that we are on the cusp of a once in a generation rise in the number of 18-year-olds in the UK. It is also worth adding that the post-study work visa is a very welcome proposal which may have a significant impact on applications from overseas applicants, although Kathy Daniels, writing for HEPI, made some interesting points about universities’ obligations to this.

The big question posed, however, is how will the sector meet rising costs in the face of “diffuse and distant returns”?

While the future of fees remains uncertain (former Universities Minister Jo Johnson again implored the Government this week not to cut fees), universities need to ensure they can continue to properly invest in academic and professional services, facilities and resources. 

Generating diverse sources of income is now inescapable and key to that is our responsiveness to demands of employers, and a willingness to develop study programmes to meet the future skills needs of our post-Brexit economy. In fact, closer alignment with industry and the Knowledge Exchange Framework both offer some exciting opportunities for growth too, particularly for the post-1992 generation of universities.

But we must not forget the 50 per cent of young people who do not enter higher education . Our sector needs to work with government to support the growth of further and technical education too. And, should a reduction in fees become a reality, it may inevitably be accompanied by a cap in student numbers, which will impact negatively on the ability of universities such as Derby to offer the level of fair access and support for social mobility that we aspire to provide.

Finally, the future of the Erasmus programme has been a focus for coverage this week in THE and others. As someone who benefited from the scheme as a student, I can fully appreciate and recommend the academic and intellectual challenge of studying in a European university and experiencing a different country and culture.
Erasmus should remain a vital link with Europe and I welcome the government’s reported “commitment” to a scheme which develops cultural awareness and an international perspective, which can only benefit the UK as we move to a more globalised set of economic relationships.

Prof Malcolm Todd
Professor Malcolm Todd, Deputy Vice-Chancellor/Provost (academic and student experience) at the University of Derby, comments on what he sees as the most significant higher education news and opinions making headlines in the first week of 2020.