New year predictions: what does 2023 have in store for universities?

With hostility from the Home Office over international student numbers, membership of Horizon Europe slipping away and heavy demands placed on institutions by regulators, UK university staff will be wondering how 2023 will play out. Patrick McGhee and Emma Rees read the runes

一月 5, 2023
Source: Getty/iStock montage

‘The OfS accidentally launches an investigation into itself’

January: The prime minister insists that there has been no dilution of the UK’s “science superpower” ambitions as he unveils the “like-for-like” replacements for European Union programmes to which the UK no longer has access because of Brexit.

The Horizon research programme will now be replaced by “Dover” and distribute £150,000 across nine universities to enable photocopying of research articles written by EU academics. UK funds previously directed to the EU’s Copernicus Earth observation programme will now fund a separate programme called “Ptolemy”, focused on showing that Middle England is the centre of the universe. And the UK’s subscriptions to the Euratom atomic energy programme will be redirected into a new project called “UKLump”, to support up to three universities to carry out research into finding abandoned coal in barren, unforgiving landscapes.

February: Times Higher Education ranking of the World’s Most International Universities attracts controversy as the Office for Students (OfS) announces that being listed in the top 200 is a “reportable event”. “We are concerned that too many universities are bringing in international students, enhancing the UK brand abroad, and developing soft power across the globe. We prefer our universities to be risk-averse, inward-looking and predictable. With lots of things we can count, document or ban,” says an OfS spokesperson.

March: A joint Advance HE and Universities UK residential workshop on academic jobs and promotion highlights the idea to staff that they should “dress for the job you want, not the job you’re in”. While there is some evidence of subsequent power dressing for the rest of the week, seven vice-chancellors are castigated for turning up for the plenary session in ermine. 

April: Responding to political pressure over the alleged prevalence of “Harry Potter degrees”, the OfS announces measures to reduce the number of people attending university. “Fifty per cent of people going to university is too high. We want it down to 15 per cent. We will do this by banning low-quality courses. Our focus groups indicate that the vaguer we are on what such courses look like, the easier it is to find them.”

May: Details of impact for the Research Excellence Framework 2027 are released by UK Research and Innovation. “For 2027, impact will account for 95 per cent of the overall quality profile, and we are narrowing the qualifying window. Research should lead to a miracle drug, a 0.5°C reduction in global warming or thought-controlled robotics within three months of publication,” says a spokesperson, although some Treasury figures worry that the new goals are still open-ended, describing them as “a charter for indulgent, self-serving, blue-sky research”.

June: The OfS updates its controversial publication Provider Typologies: Methodology for grouping OfS-registered providers. Despite its insistence that these new monikers “will not affect our decision-making and refute the idea that they imply any judgement of regulatory risk for providers in one group rather than another”, others are less convinced. The categories are PUMAs (Powerful Universities with Ministerial Allies), ANDICAPs (Awkward Northern Institutions Doggedly Creating Advancement for the Poor), SHAPLAs (Specialist Huggy Arts Providers with Lippy Alumni), IKEAs (Institutions Keeping Economies Afloat) and Other.

July: Suella Braverman questions London Economics’ calculation of the net £30 billion contribution to the UK economy of international students. “I am not prepared to accept that figure until I see it on the side of a bus,” says the home secretary.

The OfS attracts criticism from across the sector as it signs a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government on sharing best practice in higher education monitoring. One Chinese official comments: “We are keen to understand how universities are regulated by the OfS in order to develop our systems in China.”

August: The OfS settles its long-running legal battle with Microsoft over the name “Office for Students”. “We will protect our intellectual property aggressively in the commercial marketplace and ensure that our global expansion continues,” explains a spokesperson. Microsoft is, however, not available for comment.

September: The Chinese government announces the ending of its partnership with the OfS. “While we were impressed by the OfS’ approach to checking and investigating universities, frankly the Chinese government lacks the extensive centralised monitoring systems, surveillance apparatus and bureaucratic infrastructure that would be needed to maintain the level of oversight and surveillance implied by the General Ongoing Conditions of Registration.”

October: Science minister George Freeman revises his “Plan B” programme to replace funds lost by universities following the UK’s continued exclusion from the European Union’s flagship research schemes. “We are committed to long-term planning for our science base but also committed to long-term intransigence to any concessions with the EU. I am, therefore, delighted today to announce plans F, G, H and I,” says Mr Freeman, who rejects suggestions that Treasury cuts have eaten into R&D budgets. “These new funds make it clear that Brexit is good news for British science, with a windfall of up to £25,000 for each university, with a further £30,000 for that all-important quantum computing statistical research,” says the minister.

November: The OfS accidentally launches an investigation into itself. “We can confirm that due to failing to submit documentation to ourselves, allied to a misunderstanding of our whistleblower arrangements, OfS has now opened an inquiry into itself,” explains a spokesman. “Due to the sensitivity of the matters in question, we will not be telling ourselves what we are investigating. We are also being both deliberately vague and disingenuously specific with ourselves about what evidence we will be looking at.”

December: Following the conclusion of its own investigation into itself, the OfS announces that it has concluded that it was indeed in breach of the General Ongoing Conditions of Registration and is fining itself £3 million.

“We will fight this entirely unwarranted and wholly justified attempt to interfere with our own operations until we have exhausted the legal process and entirely accept all the recommendations in the report,” says a spokeswoman. “All of which we are already empowered to do through the Higher Education and Research Act (2017), which we are legally obliged to reiterate tiresomely in all letters, emails, tweets and graffiti. We also stand by our allegedly incorrect use of ‘refute’ in previous press statements.”

Patrick McGhee is assistant vice-chancellor of the University of Bolton.

Getty/Alamy/iStock montage

‘The cancellation of cancel culture was cancelled’

So, here we are on New Year’s Eve 2023, looking back at what has been a volatile year in UK higher education. University leaders made sense of the shifting political landscape by coining more acronyms, slicing more departments and vaunting more vacuity than ever before. As in 2022 so in 2023, the unprecedented became increasingly precedented.

As dawn broke on the last day of January 2023, thousands of members of the University and College Union (UCU) came together in a rally to celebrate their above-inflation pay award, and resolved to continue negotiations around working conditions and pensions. News of the union’s extraordinary success was widely reported: “Woke no longer broke!” (Daily Mail); “FFS” (Minister for Universities (January)); “What industrial action?” (Amy, PPE, Oxford).

The cancellation of cancel culture was cancelled in February, as the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was thrown out of the Lords. Disappointed supporters of the bill began a candlelit vigil on College Green. For more than three weeks major news outlets from around the globe interviewed these unfortunate individuals daily about their experiences of being cancelled. “We’re tired of being silenced,” a prominent advocate of the bill told CNN, the BBC, Times Higher Education, Reuters, Al Jazeera, Fox News and Emu Today.

Confusion reigned in March as the Home Office’s plans to cap international student numbers collapsed. “International students play a major role in enriching the cultural life of our university,” one vice-chancellor, an onomastician who declined to be named, was quoted as saying, “and without their contributions I was faced with the very difficult choice of which of my houses to relinquish. Happily for all concerned, that crisis has been averted.”

April saw the launch of a new training scheme for UK HE senior management teams. One v-c explained how the course had been invaluable in helping her institution to “pivot to flexible hybrid digitalisation strategies going forward, to highlight the sustainable buy-in of service tower owners in responding to increased functionality in the student offer”. (When the entire undergraduate student body of the UK were invited to comment on this comment, no one was available to comment.) The same v-c later celebrated scooping coveted first place in the scheme’s annual “Creating Random Acronyms for Professionals” competition, with her institution having generated no fewer than 27 brand new acronyms in 2022 alone.

In May, the inaugural “Bring your v-c to work” day was held. Around the country, university lecturers went about their day-to-day business shadowed by senior managers. One bursar was outraged when the lecturer she was shadowing went to collect a parcel from a foodbank in working hours. “We expect our staff to visit foodbanks in their own time,” she said. The head of HR at another institution expressed similar alarm when he was forced to change his plans at short notice because a distraught student had sought pastoral guidance from the professor he was shadowing: “I don’t think the student had really thought through the impact her spontaneous anguish would have on the wider university community,” he said. The minister for universities (May) advised the immediate abandonment of the initiative. No one objected.

June heralded the launch of Blue Tick degree courses across the UK. Elon Musk made the move, having been drawn to the sector by the promise of a v-c’s salary. It is hoped as we move into 2024 that the last remaining humanities courses will be taken under the wing of the National Trust.

There was a dramatic increase in July in the number of subscribers to the support group for UK researchers who just knew that this summer would absolutely, definitely and without doubt be the summer when they finally completed that piece of writing. The tremors of the futility of this optimism continue to be felt throughout the sector and early predictions suggest that exactly the same academics will regroup next summer.

University comms teams were overwhelmed in August’s heatwave as radio phone-in producers trawled directories for experts to tell listeners precisely how exceptional the heatwave was. In the same month, the minister for universities (August) was forced to apologise live on the Today programme after he forgot that he was the minister for universities. “I thought it was still that other one, or even the one before,” he said.

Rapturous applause rang out in September at the Universities UK annual conference as a spokesperson told delegates: “I just want to tell you how we’re feeling. I’ve got to make you understand that UUK are never going to give you up. We’re never going to let you down.”

The advent of the new academic year in October was marred by an accommodation crisis. Hannah, a fresher housed in Central Birmingham University’s overflow halls of residence, told reporters: “The sea views are delightful, but the four-hour commute can be a strain.”

The first UK university to warn of imminent bankruptcy did so in November. The minister for universities (November) said: “Are you sure it’s me? OK. This is a dark day for universities. It’s time for UUK to step up. They really have given you up and let you down.”

A mass exodus of senior managers from UK universities is precipitated by the government’s December announcement of the reconfiguration of the New Year’s Honours list to recognise people who have done genuinely good works. One v-c, who had brought in external consultants to deliver compulsory decolonisation training to all staff members in her institution, talked of her disappointment. “I didn't think levelling up meant that kind of levelling or that kind of up,” she sobbed, “and had I known what decolonisation really meant I’d have waited until after I’d got the OBE.”

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester.



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Reader's comments (2)

Not funny.