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Four possible futures for English higher education after the election

  • 6 June 2024
  • By Professor Sir Chris Husbands

England’s universities face serious financial challenges because there are pressures on three of their main income streams – a flat undergraduate fee cap, unsustainable research funding and pressures on international student recruitment. It is well-known that this is imposing tough choices on individual universities, but too little attention has been paid to what this means in the long run for the size and shape of the university sector.

As the general election campaign takes full flight, a new HEPI Report sponsored by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, Four futures: Shaping the future of higher education in England, looks beyond individual and short-term funding challenges to consider the long-term future of higher education.

The author, Professor Sir Chris Husbands, is the former vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University (2016-23). He develops four plausible scenarios for the future of English higher education and looks at what they could mean for students, universities and government.

  • Scenario 1 considers what happens on the current funding trajectory.
  • Scenario 2 looks at what a higher education sector fully funded for high participation, research and innovation might look like.
  • Scenario 3 explores the implications of a tertiary system.
  • Scenario 4 considers what a more differentiated system might look like.

These four scenarios are used to illustrate the main choices for an incoming government, and the ways universities and their leaders might constructively try to influence the policy debate on higher education.

Professor Sir Chris Husbands, the author of the report, said:

‘There is no realistic way through the issues facing English universities without thinking about the future shape and size of the sector.

‘The shape of higher education in 2024 is a consequence of previous interactions between universities and policy. It could – and will – change.

‘Whoever wins the election on 4 July will need to think hard about the higher education the country needs and is willing to support.’

In his Foreword to the Report, Professor Shitij Kapur, Vice-Chancellor & President of King’s College London, writes:

‘UK universities are held in high esteem all over the world – envied for their excellence and widely emulated. But despite their stellar reputation, they are currently experiencing some of the greatest funding challenges and most strident questioning of their role that they have ever faced. Against this backdrop, and with a general election around the corner, this report could not have arrived at a more important moment. …

‘The paper is vital reading for those who want to understand how fine the balance is between a sector that will spend the next decade reacting haphazardly to recurrent crises in institutional finances and purpose, and one that is able to forge a path towards being a key part of the UK’s future success. At its core, the paper highlights how different the outcomes could look depending on how urgently and actively any new government engages with universities in reimagining the sector.’

Note for Editors

HEPI was founded in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.


  1. Paul Wiltshire says:

    So no consideration then of a scenario saving money by reducing the number of students ?

    Seems like yet another report from people who work in HE (so presumably have a direct pecuniary interest in the sector and/or are HE advocates) who are seemingly oblivious to any notion that we may have too many young adults participating in HE at great cost to themselves and the taxpayer, and that we could solve the funding crisis by allocating the limited resources to far fewer courses.

  2. Albert Wright says:

    I agree with Paul Wiltshire above.

    If we want to get more people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to University, the best way to do this is by investing in early years and primary education.

    The current activities designed to improve wider participation are misguided and costly.

    Government should not fund university research from tax payer funds. If they want funding, they should do deals with companies and banks.

    Let Universities educate overseas students who are prepared to pay more. It is interesting to see there is a wide range of prices on offer. This suggests the existence of a true market in which consumers will pay what they consider a fair price for the service offered by different providers. There is nothing to stop those same Universities offering their products and services to domestic students.

    The growth of Apprenticeship Degrees, which are provided by private sector organisations as well as Universities, indicates that this market can also work for employers and students and that Universities seem happy enough with the profitability to them of thes qualifications.

    The fact that franchised organisations with sub contracts are able to offer a wide range of degrees at a much lower cost (around 20 to 30% lower than the Franchisor) seems to indicate that there may be ways the Universities can reduce their costs.

    What is there to stop banks ( or Universities) directly offering prospective Undergraduates loans to study specific subjects at specific institutions?

    We have too many universities, offering too many courses to too many students at too high a cost.

    The existing model for the sector is not working well for any of the stake holders. Radical reform, based on social market principles would be better than the quasi oligopoli of independent academic institutions we have today.

  3. Hrothgar says:

    These comments are hilarious.

    “Government should not fund university research from tax payer funds. If they want funding, they should do deals with companies and banks.”

    Do you have the slightest idea of how research works, its essential dynamics? If not, why comment on it like this, in such patronising tones?

    The level of intelligence shown within the so-called public “debate over the future of HE” is frighteningly grim. All the better for its hovering grifters.

  4. The paper rightly acknowledges that no Whitehall Department has oversight of the sector ( p 17) and then goes on to say that the scenarios also do not reference ‘the interaction of higher education with wider central or local government policy’ (p.20). This is surprising as scenarios 3 & 4 refer to place . cross government steering mechanisms are needed to move in the direction of maximising the sustainable contribution of HE to civil society locally and globally? How can the arts and humanities contribute to building local community infrastructure ? Is there a role for research intensive universities in the large cities outside London working with other HEIs to serve the wider region? What lessons can be learned from other countries? In short, the sector talking to and lobbying for itself is not enough.

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