This blog was kindly contributed by Sarah Stevens, Director of Policy at the Russell Group (@RussellGroup).
Many would say that the UK higher education system dodged a bullet at the recent Autumn Statement, with the deferral of significant fiscal restraint until after the next election meaning no immediate shift to austerity-style cuts. During an otherwise turbulent year, we should celebrate the fact we have at least short-term stability on the funding settlement for R&D and higher education, even if the picture differs quite significantly across the devolved nations.
But given all the political upheaval, especially in recent months, many of the big-ticket items on the agenda for higher education and research policy are still unresolved, and that ‘dodge’ in the Autumn Statement is only a delay in facing up to challenges we can all see on the road ahead.
The Government continues to pursue association to Horizon Europe but progress will be difficult until we see a break-through in the negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol. Recent announcements to inject more funding into universities to retain European talent and networks have been very welcome but the continuing uncertainty is being felt in the research community.
Reforms following the post-Augar consultation earlier this year are still in the pipeline and have the potential to radically reshape parts of the sector. The future funding picture is still to be decided after 2024/25 for both research and undergraduate education. Our own analysis shows per student funding will be at its lowest level since the millennium by the time of the next election and without any action to address the effects of inflation on its real value, the situation will quickly start to look pretty dire.
Universities are also increasingly being caught up in wider debates which are dividing political parties. Despite many positive changes on visa policy in recent years, there is a risk international students could be seen as a soft target for a government keen to show it is being tough on migration. Universities have also been a major new front in culture war battles fought on the pages of national newspapers and social media.
Alongside domestic politics, the war in Ukraine has brought into stark relief how rapid shifts in geopolitics can impact on UK higher education. Universities across the country have stepped up to support their staff and students through the conflict, and the related cost of living crisis, as well as partnering with Ukrainian institutions to help them rebuild and retain talent. Many in the sector are now considering what the impact would be if the UK’s relations with other key partners such as China deteriorated quickly and what mitigations might be required.
Despite all these challenges, as the new year dawns, UK higher education is ostensibly in good health. There is record student demand at home and from abroad with predictions this will continue to rise for at least several years, the sector is able to demonstrate very significant economic impact as a result of its research, innovation and work with business, and there are opportunities to play into government agendas on levelling up and innovation clusters to maximise this impact across the country.
But this work could be stymied if key policy questions on funding and regulation for universities remain unanswered. As in many other sectors, the effects of inflation will soon start to impact on the capability and quality universities can deliver if not addressed. A sustainable new funding settlement that is fair for universities, students and taxpayers is critical to ensuring quality can be protected and enhanced, and the benefits of higher education continue to be available to everyone.
The last few years have seen the UK and our universities face a series of challenges and rapid changes that forced major shifts in the way we teach and deliver research. The sector showed how quickly it could pivot to address emerging crises through its response to the pandemic, creating covid vaccines, launching online provision to ensure students could continue their learning, and supporting NHS capability through Nightingale hospitals, among many other things.
In a world where global threats are increasing and complex problems like climate change are high on the agenda, the flexibility universities showed during the Covid-19 response demonstrates how much of a pivotal role the sector can play in assuring the UK’s resilience to large-scale threats.
Through its support for R&D the government has recognised universities will be key players in efforts to address and respond to a range of challenges from climate change to digitisation and public health. But the higher education sector can have a much wider impact in shaping a more prosperous future for the UK.
From supporting individuals to gain the skills they need to secure high-quality, rewarding work, to civic engagement that boosts communities around the country, and international partnerships that bring export income and promote UK soft power, universities are crucial to delivering on the Government’s priorities. In 2023, we hope Ministers recognise the potential of this world-leading asset across the broad range of decisions they are making and work together in support of institutions for the benefit of the country.