As we head towards the close of the year, many of us will be reflecting on the year just gone and looking ahead to what 2018 has in store. This year, perhaps more than any other in recent times, has been relentless for UK higher education. Hardly a week has gone by without UK universities featuring prominently in the news in some shape or form.

Sector reforms

In England, the year began with all eyes on the Higher Education and Research Bill (as it was then) and its passing through Parliament. Debates were rife in the House of Lords about protecting institutional autonomy in the face of what many perceived as the formal ‘marketisation’ of the sector. The Haldane Principle (defined as the principle by which decisions on research funding are taken through a robust peer-review process, free from state intervention) was consequently enshrined into law.

General Election

The shock announcement of a General Election in April cut short debates over the Bill and significant concessions had to be made as the Government raced against time to get the Bill through Parliament in the pre-election ‘wash-up’ phase. Notable concessions included the announcement of an independent review of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in 2019/20 and a curtailment of the degree awarding powers originally intended for the Office for Students (OfS), set to become fully operational in Spring 2018 under its newly appointed leadership team of Nicola Dandridge (CEO), Sir Michael Barber (Chair) and Chris Millward (Director for Fair Access and Participation).

Jeremy Corbyn

The General Election campaign also saw the growth in popularity among students of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who succeeded in gaining swathes of young voters on the back of his pledge to axe tuition fees. A HEPI/Youthsight poll conducted in the run-up to the General Election found that students were more likely to vote Labour than any other party, with more than half saying they would vote Labour if a General Election were to be held ‘tomorrow’. The student vote was widely believed to have contributed to Labour’s eventual electoral gains – particularly in traditionally Conservative university seats like Canterbury.

Maintaining momentum?

Labour’s popularity among young voters went from strength-to-strength as the year progressed. The results of another HEPI/Youthsight poll published just this month showed that 68 per cent of students now back Labour. However, most of them think Labour (55%) and Jeremy Corbyn (58%) support remaining in the European Union (EU), suggesting the Party has to tread carefully over Brexit if it wants to retain the strong base of student support which it has accumulated this year.

Strong and stable?

On the face of it, the loss of a Tory majority in the House of Commons appeared to undermine the Conservatives’ claim of providing ‘strong and stable’ leadership for the country this summer. However, as far as universities were concerned, the reappointment of Jo Johnson as Universities Minister initially seemed to provide some stability for the sector, since – as described in a HEPI blog at the time – the first task for anybody new in the role would have been to grapple with the intricacies of the TEF (the results of which were due imminently).

DUP

One of the biggest changes to Government after the Election was the Conservatives’ ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). An initial HEPI analysis of DUP policies suggested the Party may well favour continued participation in EU funding schemes and put pressure on the Government to back down on plans to include international students in net migration targets. Although these issues are yet to be resolved, there is no doubt that the DUP’s influence on the Government has been significant, as evidenced by their recent discontent over the Irish border question and the Government’s continued commitment to a deal which works for the whole of the UK.

International students

Since the Election, Home Secretary Amber Rudd has also U-turned on the issue of international students, beginning a cabinet push to remove them from net migration figures. To provide evidence in support, she has commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to assess the impact of international students in the UK – and a future HEPI study (to be released on 11th January), produced in conjunction with Kaplan International and London Economics, on the cost-benefits of international students will feed into this assessment.

Value for money

 There can be no doubt that the tuition fee debate reignited by the General Election campaign went on to dominate the UK higher education policy agenda for the rest of the year. Lord Adonis quickly picked up the anti-fees baton that Corbyn had handed the nation, embarking on a summer of brutal public attacks on university leaders about their ‘cartel’-like operations and their levels of pay and remuneration.

As we move in to the New Year, accusations like these are still dominating the media, with the Times Scotland running on its front page just this week calls for the Scottish Government to clamp down on the pay of university leaders. Since higher education is free for ‘home’ students in Scotland, this shows the ‘value for money’ question permeates far beyond the tuition fee debate that rumbles on in the rest of the UK and is sure to push the question of good governance to the top of universities’ agendas for the year ahead.

Student finance

When it comes to the future of tuition fees, we are closing the year very much in limbo. At the Conservative Party Conference in October, Prime Minister Theresa May called for a review of the student finance system and froze planned fee increases in England, which had initially been set to rise in line with inflation for the academic year 2018/19. The nature and timing of the promised review nevertheless remains a mystery, with Universities Minister Jo Johnson enigmatically pronouncing that the student finance system is continually being kept under review, leaving the sector doubting whether any new initiatives will ever be taken in this area.

Spotlight on Wales

Meanwhile, in Wales, the Welsh Government confirmed it will implement a new system of financial support for students after accepting the recommendations of the Diamond Review. All Welsh students – irrespective of where they choose to study in the UK – will receive support equivalent to the national living wage from the academic year 2018/19. The introduction of means-tested grants could see some students receiving maintenance support of up to £11,250 if they study in London and £9,000 a year elsewhere in the UK if they live away from home. Wales is also set to become the first in Europe to provide maintenance support to postgraduate and part-time students.

The TEF

When the results of the first national pilot of the TEF were released on 22 June, headlines were dominated by the fact that some of the UK’s ‘leading’ universities failed to obtain the highest Gold TEF award. A HEPI report into the TEF provider submissions revealed just some of the successful techniques employed by institutions to convince the TEF assessors to allocate a higher award.

As disputed as its metrics may be, the TEF continues into 2018, with subject-level pilots firmly underway, as well as the next round of the exercise – the TEF (Year 3) – which includes use of the Governments’ Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data to better reflect graduate outcomes and a new focus on grade inflation.

Brexit

Finally, although the Government claims to have made progress in the Brexit negotiations over recent months, the higher education sector is yet to receive clarity on what awaits in terms of access to future European funding schemes (such as FP9) and freedom of movement for both staff and students. As it stands, the UK is potentially entering the last full year of negotiations before it leaves the EU. So, 2018 should hopefully bring many of the answers we need to start planning for higher education in a post-Brexit Britain.