Brexit, tuition fees and China: my predictions for academia in 2018

Simon Marginson looks ahead at what 2018 has in store for academia in the UK and further afield 

December 31, 2017
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In this look ahead to what lies in store for the world of higher education in 2018, Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, picks eight themes to look out for over the next 12 months. 

Brexit

In what will continue to be an exceptionally challenging and unstable time, 2018 will begin to clarify what Brexit means for higher education.

We have known for some time that it means the loss of regional and structural adjustment funding but the position on European Union staff and UK participation in funded European research networks has been unclear. Phase two of the Brexit negotiations is likely to stabilise the position of existing non-UK EU staff. As yet we have no idea whether the government will be successful in keeping the UK in Horizon 2020 and the other research programmes – in the absence of free movement it still seems a bridge too far – but you never know.

The EU is not going to let the UK cherry-pick, and why should it? But there’s a good deal of appreciation on both sides of the table for the UK’s contribution to European research and European research’s contribution to UK research. We’ll see. 

Migration

With the recent 100,000-plus drop in net migration, plus official awareness of the potential of Brexit to isolate the UK, the political climate on migration matters is shifting. This will also loosen up the present imbroglio between migration policy and education exports.

By the end of 2018 the government might have a vigorous new migration programme in place, designed to attract skilled labour, which will be pitched at academics in Europe among others. We may even see a softening of the present harsh UK regime on post-study work visas that has discouraged many possible international students from South Asia.

Bringing the UK post-study visas into line with Canada and Australia would seem crucial if UK international education is to return to vigorous growth. And vigorous growth in exports will be absolutely essential if the universities are to partly compensate for the financial downturn triggered by Brexit – more so if we lose full UK participation in European research.

Tuition fees

The English tuition fee debate will march on through 2018 with Lord Adonis posturing brilliantly – as he has done in recent months – but neither he nor anyone else will have a viable alternative financial framework on offer. Labour is aware that income-contingent loans are a clever (and Labour-instigated) policy that combines socio-economic and gender access with shared funding, and the longer the debate runs, the less Labour will be able to exploit anti-fee and anti-loan sentiment without explaining where the money is coming from.

This suggests, rather sadly, that in the end the debate is likely to be about tweaks to the present system, though the reintroduction of maintenance grants is a real possibility as the parties pitch to youth. The level of the charge has always been too high, but rather than matching a reduction in the student burden with an additional public subsidy, thus enabling a better public/private balance, it is more likely that a government on either side of the political divide will simply cut the fee to £6,000 to £7,000 without adequate compensation.

Financial decline?

After UK universities have been so well funded – in historical terms – in the past decade, especially since 2012, tuition fee cuts and Brexit together are likely to trigger a sustained slump in financial terms.

A tiered English system

The most important story may be the distributional one within the sector. The top 10 Russell Group universities will struggle through intact. If they lose on EU research they will be able to pump up high-fee international students. However, the middle-regional and lower-tier universities are likely to lose on domestic tuition cuts, EU student falls and disappearing EU regional/structural money, and will be unable to pump up international students enough to fill the hole. It will not be pretty and, as usual, it will be the North and the Midlands that have it worst.

Executive pay

Expect any minister to trot out executive salaries as a blanket justification for underfunding, every time the universities complain and often when they don’t. Vice-chancellors' pay, which is a tabloid issue with almost no substance and no possible resolution (how can any executive pay level be “fair”? It’s totally arbitrary), has years to run as a destructive influence in the sector.

Executive pay, though, in an indirect manner, does underline the hard fact that higher education, far from being the engine of universal upward mobility that some imagine, is one of the factors driving growing economic and social inequality in the UK. The emphasis on the sector, in both policy and university marketing, as a source of private economic benefit, and the growing stratification between top- and middle/lower-tier universities, is part of the problem and certainly not part of the solution.

If the tabloid executive pay issue transmogrified into a Guardian/Economist-style discussion of inequality in the UK we would all be better off immediately, but do not hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Too many graduates?

We will also hear the refrain “too many graduates/not enough graduate jobs” louder in 2018 and, whether through government re-regulation or downward social pressure on demand, the growth of participation in the UK will slow or halt for a time.

This is about to happen in Australia, where the government shut down the demand-driven system in the recent national budget, and imposed a hefty funding cut to redouble the point. The two countries often move lockstep on participation. Eventually, some years down the track, student growth will resume (it always does), with graduate jobs continuing to move across and down the occupational structure and age cohort graduation moving towards 50 per cent and beyond – just as is happening in many other countries.

China’s rise

China will continue to expand its global role, especially through the massive infrastructure investments entailed in the One Belt, One Road programme. At the same time there will be growing international resistance and pushback against China’s global role, especially in the English-speaking countries, and parts of Europe, although perhaps less so in Germany than elsewhere.

Because the One Belt, One Road period is coinciding with what is shaping up to be a prolonged period of internal political tightening in China, the global debate about China will often focus sharply on the differences between Western liberal political cultures and China’s dynastic political system, especially in relation to political rights in civil society. The universities will inevitably become caught up in this, especially Western universities.

Much depends on whether China will continue to treat internationalisation in higher education as a positive and as a strategy of national modernisation, an approach that in the past two decades has greatly benefited all parties. If mutual incomprehension and hostility (an international dialogue of the deaf) takes over in the larger geopolitical sphere, it will be more difficult in higher education and research to keep open the lines of communication, mutual sharing and influence.         

Simon Marginson is professor of international higher education and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education.

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Reader's comments (1)

The paragraph headed A tiered English System makes little sense.

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