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In a week when the government reshuffled its cabinet, HE issues that made headlines gave the newly-appointed universities minister a taste of things to come, says Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive of the Institute of Student Employers .
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.
Mike Ratcliffe, academic registrar at Nottingham Trent University, reflects on issues emerging from a packed week of higher education news.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education has reported almost a 21 per cent rise in the number of complaints it received from students last year – rising to their highest ever level at 2,371.
UK universities have boosted spending on facilities while in England class sizes have improved since the introduction of higher fees, analysis by the Complete University Guide has found.
The findings coincide with the publication of The Guide’s annual university league table, which is the first to use the latest data on research quality.
The top of the table in this year's rankings is unchanged from last year, with Cambridge, Oxford and the London School of Economics occupying the top three spots. Lancaster and Surrey have moved into the top ten, and Imperial College London has risen two places to fourth.
Other climbers are Ulster (up 17 to 67th), Sussex (up 17 to 21st), De Montfort (up 17 to 54th), Bradford (up 15 to 62nd) Liverpool John Moores (up 14 to 67th), Leeds Trinity (up 12 to 101st), Bournemouth (up 11 to 54th), and Gloucestershire (up 11 to 80th).
Eleven universities fell ten places or more: Winchester (27 places), Chester (15), Falmouth (15), Hertfordshire (14), Arts, London (14), Newman (14), Glyndwr (13), Leeds Beckett (12), Salford (12), Glasgow Caledonian (11), and Plymouth (11).
A review of the data for the league table since 2010 shows an initial worsening in student:staff ratios followed by an improvement across the whole of the United Kingdom that began with the introduction of fees of up to £9,000 a year in England.
The exception is Wales where the ratio worsened slightly between 2012 and 2013 before a reduction last year. But Welsh universities still have the highest student:staff ratios of any in the UK.
Spending on facilities increased steadily over the full five year period.
The growth in the number of “good” honours degrees - graduates achieving first or upper second class honours - also increased, as did student satisfaction.
A sustained rise in the percentage of graduates in professional employment or engaged in further study six months after graduation reflects the continued recovery from the financial crisis, according to the Guide. Recovery was already apparent before the coalition came to power and graduate employment levels have since returned to pre-crisis levels in every part of the UK, although the improvement in Wales has been less marked. In contrast, Scotland has consistently achieved the highest rate in every year reviewed.
Dr Bernard Kingston, principal author of TheCompleteUniversityGuide.co.uk, said: “UK students seem to be getting a better deal for their higher tuition fees in almost every area. It remains to be seen how far this trend can continue but in the short term at least, students are benefitting from spending on facilities that affect them directly.
“It is probable that the improvement in student:staff ratios has been influenced in part by universities recruiting for the Research Excellence Framework exercise.
“And the graduate employment market has recovered more quickly from the financial crisis than might have been predicted, offering increased chances of professional-level work or further study after graduation.
“There is significant evidence that universities’ efforts to develop employability skills has had a knock-on effect on graduate prospects. This is crucial for the first cohort of students from English universities to pay tuition fees of up to £9,000, who graduate this summer.”
Dr Kingston added: “There is a considerable degree of stability at the upper end of the league table this year, suggesting that the transition from the previous assessment of research quality to this year’s Research Excellence Framework has not made a significant difference.”
Complete University Guide Top 40
London School of Economics
Imperial College London
University College London
King's College London
Queen Mary, University of London
Royal Holloway, University of London
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