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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.

Welcome to the higher education rollercoaster

UK higher education had more than its fair share of ups and downs over the past week. Charlie Ball, Head of Higher Education Intelligence at Prospects, charts the highs and lows.


As pubs, hairdressers and theme parks reopened in the UK this week, senior university staff might have been forgiven for being at the front of the queue for a drink, while thinking they’ve no need to visit any theme parks when the higher education sector is enough of a rollercoaster experience for anyone.

Just as there were signs that international student deferrals might not be as widespread as originally feared, the Government went on the attack against the sector, with accusations of poor value for money, and data suggested that students are becoming less satisfied with online learning.

As long as there have been universities there have been voices raised deriding their quality and demanding fewer people attend them. The modern ritual is familiar. A piece or two appears in the broadsheets, everyone has a row about relative numbers of arts graduates and plumbers, quotes their favoured statistics and then we all move on for a couple of months until the argument is reconvened.

But this week felt a little different. Universities minister Michelle Donelan, speaking at the annual summit of the National Education Opportunities Network, accused English universities of taking advantage of students from deprived backgrounds who she said they have enrolled onto “popular sounding” courses with poor standards and “no real demand” from the labour market for their graduates. Students, she said, were being ‘taken advantage of’ by the provision of ‘dumbed-down’ degree courses – very strong rhetoric from a Universities Minister. In a further indication of Government thinking, long-time champion of apprenticeships and chair of the education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, called for a significant expansion of degree apprenticeship provision, in a speech to the Edge vocational education charity. Halfon called for a "recasting of our skills priorities to place apprenticeships front and centre - to create a new apprenticeship culture as the lifeblood of training and employment". And the Prime Minister himself said in his big set-piece speech on the post-pandemic economy this week that too many courses in universities “are not now delivering value”, signalling that further education would be prioritised when the government bids to rebuild the UK economy after the coronavirus pandemic.

But as strategic data advisor Andy Youell pointed out in a WonkHE blog, identifying poor quality courses (or even courses at all) is a lot harder than it appears. Professor Chris Husbands,  Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University – an institution that knows a thing or two about the provision of courses that lead to employable students from low-participation backgrounds –  questioned why the Government seems to want to reduce university participation with a powerful call from his own experience of HE as a life-transforming experience. This outlook does not tally with the Government also wanting the UK to be at the forefront of a future built around “big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics and further automation, 3D printing, quantum computing”, along with “genetic sequencing and screening, gene editing and other life science and biotech advances”, he suggested. Meanwhile the scholarly community in the arts and humanities, a popular target for the sector’s critics, issued a robust defence of their value to a post-pandemic UK, and hopes were expressed that universities could help with the Government’s stated desire for a regional rebalancing of the UK economy.

Over all this hangs the spectre of university financing. The OECD cautioned that online teaching was just as expensive as in-person instruction and that there was ‘no easy way to save money’, whilst HEPI found enthusiasm among students for online learning to be waning . Meanwhile in a WonkHE blog, Andy Westwood, Vice Dean for Social Responsibility in the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester, said universities needed to carefully balance short term priorities against medium and longer term aims as they plan their post-pandemic future.

But before you rush to the bar for a stiff triple, there was some good news. Some 42 per cent of prospective international students still plan to begin their studies this year, while a further 40 per cent are aiming for 2021, according to QS. Three quarters were willing to study virtually if the online-only component was temporary.

So we might conclude that universities are in dire financial shape, but not as dire as it might be; and they’re offering poor courses and need to be cut down to size whilst simultaneously being vital to the UK post-pandemic recovery. Let’s all sit down and strap in for another week on the universities rollercoaster.