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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.

Rethinking universities from the outside in

Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.

Is the government missing the real 'levelling up' value of HE?

The Westminster government should wake up to the full potential of higher education to help it meet its ‘levelling up’ goals, argues Professor Martin Jones, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University.

Storm clouds are gathering over UK universities

The past week’s events and news are a sign of turbulent times for UK universities, warns Nicola Owen, Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) at Lancaster University.


It was a stormy old week last week in higher education, with ill winds blowing from a number of directions.

It started as collective hearts sank when UCU confirmed another fourteen days of strikes in coming weeks over disputes when many of us had hoped glimmers of progress were emerging. Instead, institutions are gearing up for another round of industrial action putting into place by now increasingly well-practised plans and communications with staff and students, trying to mitigate wherever possible the impact of lost classes.  Students are also becoming more wise to the limitations of those responses and we began to see emerge a lobby for compensation growing from a number of student bodies, with a highly transactional view of the amount due per hour of contact time lost to their education. 

That consumerist lens was also highlighted by UCAS’ decision to partner with Which?, to benefit from the work that UK consumer champion has done to provide guidance and resources for students and their parents, through UCAS’ own site. 

Further consumerist behaviour was illustrated in The Times reporting that some universities have offered students money to take a gap year due to having recruited too many students on regulated number courses in medical and nursing courses casts. This cast further insight on how universities are adapting to the legal and funding realities of the contractual nature of the student-university relationship.

However, it was the multi-dimensional focus on student numbers which primarily caught my attention last week.  With newly published HESA and UCAS data producing ripe pickings for analysts, we saw stories which indicated that HE remains popular, with two out of every five 18-year-olds applying for university this year, an increase despite a falling UK demographic and an increase in the rate of applications from students with the poorest backgrounds. But this popularity is also geographic, with a much higher proportion of 18-year-olds applying from London and the South-East than elsewhere, whilst in Scotland there is a counter trend of falling application rates. 

This sounds like a success story for the lifting of student number controls, but Catherine Fletcher’s report in the Guardian provided another perspective which argued this policy had been ‘disastrous’ and created a ‘free-for-all’ creating different but negative pressures for struggling and selectively recruiting universities alike, with some deep reductions in student numbers for some and sharp uncontrolled growth in others.  That changing pattern of study was also revealed in the latest HESA data, and Mark Kernohan’s analysis in WonkHE provided a great illustration of how and where subjects had grown, at sector level, geographically and by institution. We can see the variability and market forces at subject level that play out in our institutions writ large and in detail.  

However the storm clouds continued to gather further last week on the international student number front.  Institutions are still trying to work through how to navigate the uncertainty created by the current state of play with EU fee and student finance – and on research.  Scotland may seek a unilateral path, as may some institutions we learned.

With incident teams still feeling buffeted from the previous week responding to coronavirus preparations, the realisation of the potential long-term effects started to hit.  The realisation of the impact delays in testing in already pressured IELTS centres recognised by UKVI, combined with the temporary closure of Chinese schools and possible delays in completion of their programmes and qualifications, could have on student recruitment for next year is a building and significant worry. It will continue building with each week that the coronavirus continues to rise and the sector needs to start thinking quickly and carefully now, in partnership with government, on appropriate responses.

The risks of financial sustainability of over-reliance on particular markets and subjects have been well-documented for years, but largely not grappled with.  Not only are the storm clouds gathering, but it appears there is a black swan on the horizon too.