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Go Gently: Why significant policy change will require nuance

  • 27 July 2022
  • By Jon Wakeford

At the recent HEPI Annual Conference 2022, Jon Wakeford, Director of Engagement at UPP and Chair of the UPP Foundation, delivered a speech exploring the themes of the day and the wider policy context. This blog is based on Jon’s address to the conference.

What are the challenges facing the future of the higher education sector?

Firstly, of course, there is sector funding. We have now had the Government’s long-awaited response to the Augar recommendations, and we have, at least in part, a better understanding of the direction of policy.

In light of what has been projected to be a £560 billion liability for the proportion of student loans which remain unrepaid by the middle of this century, the Government is looking to develop a suite of proposals for reform which aim to balance what are not mutually inclusive goals: namely, continuing participation, a more balanced contribution to the cost of higher education between students and the taxpayer, and a focus on the quality and employability outcomes of courses offered by universities. 

One of the challenges at the heart of this wish – and importantly one which will be borne by universities – will be how to continue delivering pedagogy at current or indeed improved levels of quality, with a reducing unit of resource.

Annual tuition fees, which in England have been frozen at £9,250 for the past five years, are now set to remain at the same level until the beginning of the 2025 academic year — at a time when inflation is set to surpass a 30-year high. Universities UK calculated that, by the end of the 2024 academic year, inflation would reduce the value of the annual tuition fee to £6,600 based on 2012 prices, when the fee cap trebled to £9,000. 

London Economics has gone further, in calculating that when the impact of inflation is taken together with the big cuts to teaching grants over the past decade — previously a key source of funding — the overall income per student would be back at 2006 levels, when fees were £3,000. Clearly, the increases to the Strategic Priorities Grant are welcomed, but they do not make up the shortfall.

And, of course, this is not a challenge that will play out equally across the sector, rather it will be a strategic challenge for each institution to position itself most effectively for what is coming next. Not all universities will have equal flexibility to pivot the focus they put on different demand cohorts and how they diversify income streams more generally. There is, therefore, a very real challenge in how we ensure that the gap between internationally focused universities and those recruiting more local students does not become a widening gulf – with the latter becoming more vulnerable as a result.

This challenge is compounded by changes to regulation and governance. It’s always positive to be asked, of course, but I suspect that there is a significant amount of consultation fatigue. 

The recent Department for Education consultation with its focus on student finance, student number controls and minimum eligibility requirements – and the Office for Students equivalents focusing on the Teaching Excellence Framework and new approaches to regulating student outcomes – are signalling a future of more regulated demand and the potential for an increased burden in terms of bureaucracy and governance.

Once again, the challenge is about the nuances of systemic balance. Few people disagree with the critical importance of retention, completion and progression into careers or further study, but the architecture of the regulation needs to be calibrated to support and enhance the likelihood of achieving targets – without impacting on the wider positive impacts that our universities have in the localities.

As the Chair of the UPP Foundation, I have seen in our work on the civic impact of universities that, as a sector, UK higher education is overwhelmingly committed to its sense of place and to ensuring that those places garner the maximum benefit from the impact of their university or universities. That said, there is also a consideration to be made regarding the impact of a reducing unit of resource and an increasing cost of regulation.

I was struck recently by the words of one registrar at one of the country’s larger institutions, who noted that bureaucracy was clearly an area where their university would like to save money rather than spend it, and reduce the burden rather than increase it. The individual noted:

We are having to invest a lot of time and effort in compliance. With no choice but to meet regulations and – with budgets tightly stretched – future cuts would be more keenly felt by students and staff … The efficiencies that will be made will ultimately impact our success as a country, in terms of knowledge exchange, in our investment in our communities, in things that make people’s lives better.

It’s important to be clear that these remarks are in no way a counsel of despair; rather, as the Government undergoes profound changes, it is a moment to highlight the care and nuance necessary to make the changes required without impacting the life chances of countless young people who will perceive themselves at a disadvantage in their future careers to more than 50 per cent of their contemporaries, if they are unable to take part in, and benefit from, higher education.

The UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission, which we launched in March 2021, was chaired by Mary Curnock Cook CBE and had three clear objectives:

  1. To ensure students get back on track after the pandemic, by contributing a collaborative effort from across the sector to ensure their successful futures.
  2. To make practical recommendations for universities and future plans for the sector and government.
  3. To curate ideas, insights and learning from all stakeholders in higher education that could be widely disseminated and used to enhance the post-pandemic student experience.

The Commission focussed on three main themes in its analysis and evidence gathering: teaching and learning; student experience; and wellbeing and employability.

As part of its evidence gathering, during October 2021 the Commission conducted a poll of more than 2,000 university students and recent graduates. The evidence was stark and demonstrated the scale of the challenges facing universities as they navigate their way out of the coronavirus crisis.

By way of a snapshot, it found:

  • approximately three-quarters of students reported that the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health;
  • fifty-seven per cent of students said the pandemic had a negative impact on the knowledge they needed to succeed on their course of study;
  • ninety per cent of students said they preferred in person teaching where content was also recorded;
  • only one-third of students said they were satisfied with the support their university had provided to help them find a job or work experience over the last 12 months; and
  • more than half of those polled felt they were below where they personally expected to be in their academic studies.

Indeed, it was this last point in particular that was striking. The overarching baseline of low confidence among school leavers and students – in addition to the pressure of feeling that they were falling behind – was pervasive. And, understandably, this pressure was particularly evident for students from more disadvantaged background.

In its final report published in February 2022, the Student Futures Commission called for joint action between universities and students to tackle problems caused by the pandemic and set out concrete actions to improve students’ experience of university. 

To regain and cement that sense of belonging, which we know is so important for success, the report set out six key themes for rebuilding immersive student experiences.

  1. support for students before they reach university;
  2. an induction into university life for each year of study;
  3. support for mental health and wellbeing;
  4. a clear outline of the teaching students will receive and the necessary tools to access it;
  5. activities inside and outside the curriculum that build skills, networks and communities; and
  6. a clear pathway towards graduate outcomes.

So, we must get back to hearing the voice of students; their thoughts and feelings as higher education gets back to some form of normality; and to thinking about how the sector will balance what appear on the surface as the competing forces of increasing demand and aspiration, with the need for a reduced cost to the public purse.  

And this is important because the UK continues to have a truly world-class higher education system, one that is adaptive, innovative, and critical to the future success of the nation. How the Government and the sector choose to work to resolve the challenges we face is of critical importance, as both will be setting the future direction, not just of the delivery of tertiary education, but also shaping the expectations and life chances of young people, the shape and skills base of the workforce and the component elements of a number of the pillars of our knowledge economy.

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1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Very helpful, strategic, questions and ideas to be considered when designing future HE in a wider context.

    While Universities are highly important, there are other things on which many people ( particularly those not involved with the sector) might have as a higher priority.

    We must think about the other 50% of people, who will not be going to a University as part of their life experience, and see housing, healthcare, employment and education for those up to age 18, as being of higher importance.

    Perhaps we must face a period of further reduced investment per student in HE and find ways to improve HE productivity. This could involve reducing the number of individual courses at many institutions in the same way that 16 to 18 has had to do.

    Perhaps we should increase the number of hours per week per student, the number of weeks per year and consider more 2 year (rather than 3 and 4 year) degrees.

    Perhaps we should reduce the number of taught post graduates.

    All parts of society are facing cost increases and Universities, like everyone else, need new thinking and new ways of working.

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