Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Time to reflect on what the higher education sector delivers and how

  • 1 July 2021
  • By Jon Wakeford

This blog was authored by Jon Wakeford, Director of Sector Engagement at UPP and Chair of the UPP Foundation. It is based on the speech that Jon delivered at HEPI’s Annual Conference on 24 June, which was co-sponsored by UPP and Lloyds Bank You can find Jon on Twitter @Jon_Wakeford.

The pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to reflect on exactly what the higher education sector delivers and how it achieves this: pedagogy, research and all the other experiential and extra-curricular activities which have been effectively put on hold for more than a year.

It has given us a chance to take stock of those elements which students have recognised as the critical parts of a university experience while throwing into sharp relief the huge importance they attach to face-to-face teaching.  

Arguably, prior to COVID-19, some parts of the university ‘product offer’ were perhaps taken for granted by students – assumed and potentially undervalued.

We know the ‘product’ provided by universities is a complex one.

It is one that is co-produced, moulded from the interaction and engagement of student and institution. It is a bespoke product with each student experience being both unique to the student, but also to the institution that is delivering it. Whether the motivation of applicants and students is to improve career prospects, have a life changing experience, gain independence or satisfy an inquisitiveness for their subject of choice, the customisation of learning and living continues unabated. And, COVID has, in part interrupted, in part hastened the progress of this direction of travel.

It is also a social product, by which I mean that a university experience is still fundamentally viewed by students as a ‘rite of passage’. The fully immersive university experience is interwoven with the tensions of material expectations and social meanings. Clearly, COVID has significantly damaged the expectations of students with respect to this element

And, it is a product currently carrying an implicit return on investment, both financial and emotional. It is an aspirational product and one that traditionally carried with it the promise of social mobility. Through the lenses of the pandemic, we can clearly see the financial investment being challenged by some students, but it is perhaps too early to gauge the longer-term impact on mobility. And, of course, it is a long-term product, both in terms of the lifetime benefits and relationship between graduate and institution. As with the promise of social mobility, it remains to be seen whether the disruption caused, impacts on the longer-term relationship between universities and their alumni.

The restrictions wrought by the pandemic have thrown some of these taken-for-granted assumptions into sharp relief so, as we consider what we might learn from the crisis, we must also take account of the experiences and recognitions highlighted in the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey.

We should also recognise that we are at an important moment for the sector in the run-in to the Comprehensive Spending Review. Key policy outputs resulting from the Post-18 education and funding review have yet to fully land following the interim conclusion published in January 2021. In total, the independent panel, made 53 comprehensive recommendations for the reform of the further and higher education sectors, but these have been largely held, pending the handling of the pandemic.

We know what part of the new landscape will look like.

We know that as part of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, and as recommended by Augar, the Government will be introducing a Lifelong Loan Entitlement from 2025, enabling people to access funding across higher and further education throughout their lifetime.

As we heard from the Secretary of State at the HEPI Annual Conference, the Government has also signalled that it will set out how the higher education teaching grant will align taxpayer funding with what it sees as ‘national priorities’, such as healthcare, STEM and specific labour market needs.

We know that Government recognises the importance of a student finance system which remains sustainable and one where, those who benefit from their higher education should make a fair contribution.

We also know that the Government has said that it intends to freeze the maximum tuition fee cap, initially for one year, to deliver better value for students and to keep the cost of higher education under control.

And finally, we know that further changes to the student finance system will be considered ahead of the next Comprehensive Spending Review.

And what might the more uncertain aspects of the post-COVID, post-Augar landscape involve?

We know that there has been some suggestion in the national press that the tuition fee cap might be cut for arts and humanities subjects from £9,250 to a maximum of £7,500. Also, that there might be a lowering of earnings threshold for graduate repayment and there might be a longer repayment period will be introduced from 30 to 40 years.

There has been a suggestion that new student number caps might be introduced either indirectly by limits on specific courses or via the imposition of minimum entry standards – alternatively, we might see cuts to teaching grants to some institutions.

HEPI’s work with London Economics has captured the different options well in the recent policy note ‘No Easy Answers’. But, as HEPI notes, different options have profoundly different outcomes.

The note identified that rules of thumb can be discerned. Firstly, that cuts to student places will make it harder for universities to deliver the transformation in widening participation expected of them by the Government and, secondly, less income for universities is likely to have a broad impact on the role that universities play in society.

So, as we consider what and how we might learn from the recent crisis, we need to do so recognising the potentially altered financial landscape which will have its own impact on how we ‘build back better’.

It is important to face the future with positivity, recognising that we are part of a world class sector – something unquestionably demonstrated throughout the pandemic.

As Chair of the UPP Foundation, we have recently established the Student Futures Commission also with the express aim of learning from the crisis

The Foundation recognised that for well for over a year, universities have worked against the odds to help their students make the most of higher education in these extraordinary circumstances.

To coincide with the formal launch of the Commission we ran a student survey (over 2000 respondents across over 100 universities) about their perceptions of the last year and what they hoped for, come September.

Nearly 60 per cent of UK students see face-to-face teaching as a top priority once they return to university in September. Just six per cent said they wanted to study fully online, and the findings confirm a continuing, significant demand for in-person learning.

Worryingly, nearly four out of five students reported a negative effect on their mental health from their experiences this year.

Whilst there was Government support for schools in building back, we felt there was a gap in bringing together insights, ideas and suggestions from across the entire higher education community to help students secure successful futures – and to help universities support each other as well.

So, the Commission Chaired by Mary Curnock-Cook was essentially created following a conversations our partners Wonkhe to address this perceived gap, and since then we have been putting in place the infrastructure for the Commission.

The Commission will explore the full ‘living and learning’ experience within three broad and interlinking themes – student experience and wellbeing, teaching and Learning and employability.

It is important to note that this is very much a constructive and positive inquiry – grappling with the practical realities of the student experience, which is where we think we can make this biggest difference.

We are really looking forward to receiving collective evidence from across the sector and we’d love you to get involved.

We look forward to hearing how students have experienced the pandemic, listening to how we respond to what we are learning, and how we might re-embed the student experience at the heart of a fully immersive experience.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *