2016: rather a bumpy year

Brexit. Trump and his howling climate changers. A sector bête noire as PM. The TEF. Turkey. Ed Balls cutting a rug. It’s been a year, all right

December 22, 2016
Truck tyre damaged by bumpy road
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The Chinese zodiac has 2016 as the year of the monkey. It certainly had a monkey on its back. Make that a troop of monkeys, with yellow comb-overs.

At Times Higher Education, we started a year of political shocks interviewing a man who was later to stun the nation with his interpretation of Gangnam Style: Ed Balls, the former chancellor of the Exchequer. In January he had yet to appear on Strictly Come Dancing, so we talked instead about higher education funding.

Balls admitted to us that the Labour government he served in “clearly didn’t find a sustainable way forward for the financing of higher education”. This “blot on Labour’s copybook”, as he put it, was seized upon by David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, who quoted our Balls interview at the dispatch box, adding that he “rather missed” his former opponent. He, too, is now missing from the parliamentary chamber.

In February, we followed Balls with a one-to-one with Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader told us he was still keen on his personal goal to scrap tuition fees, but acknowledged that it was a fraught topic that would require “serious debate within the party”. In the months since there has been debate aplenty within Labour – but little of it on higher education.

Early warnings about what Brexit would mean for universities began in March, when we visited Berlin and Munich to talk to German vice-chancellors. “To have Britain no longer belonging to the EU would be a disaster for international research in Europe,” said Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors’ Conference.

The portents of things to come continued a month later, when we reported on declines in the international students coming to the UK from seven of the top 10 countries for recruitment.

In another story, which also seems prophetic, we reported on a growing outcry over the treatment of scholars in Turkey. This was three months before the attempted coup, which was followed by an iron-fisted crackdown, including the sacking of 1,500 deans across Turkish universities.

In May, the higher education White Paper was published, with detailed plans to open up degree-awarding powers to private providers. Jo Johnson, the universities minister, was adamant that this would lead to a “net gain in quality”, telling THE that the Office for Students would “operate a very, very high quality bar”.

Nothing happened in June. Except the referendum, of course. Universities and academics were among the most shaken by the result, and while the government has given limited commitments on areas of immediate financial concern, the reports of academics looking to leave, and of British-based academics being politely removed from multinational research proposals by colleagues who feared they could cost them European research income in future, began to circulate immediately.

In other news, we published our “Mock TEF”, the results of which caused a major stir and made clear the potential for the TEF to challenge the usual hierarchies. But that, surely, is the point.

July and August passed in a blur of Brexit anxiety, with the departure of David Cameron and selection of Theresa May as prime minister, a peculiar moment for those in UK higher education.

As home secretary, May was the bête noire of universities, forever seeking to crack down on student “migration”. But when the choice for Tory leader narrowed to May and Andrea Leadsom, many in academia found themselves in the odd position of rooting for their erstwhile nemesis.

In September, we published our World University Rankings, which came with a big story: for the first time in their 12-year history, they were topped by the University of Oxford. Louise Richardson, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, told us that Brexit was a grave threat to this global pre-eminence: “If our academics cannot secure funding for their research, they will go elsewhere,” she said. “We, frankly, do not have the resources commensurate with our global position.”

This annual fixture was followed in October by THE’s first-ever Wall Street Journal/THE US College Rankings, which shifted our approach to rankings. Partnering with the largest newspaper in the US, we conducted a student engagement survey of 100,000 students across America. The results (Stanford University came top) were published to coincide with THE’s World Academic Summit at the University of California, Berkeley.

In November, we published an analysis of how universities should respond to the “climate changers” – populist politicians such as Nigel Farage and the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

A fortnight later, Trump seized office in an election that shocked not only universities but the world. What comes next? Only 2017 will tell – and THE will be reporting on the implications for higher education every step of the way. Until then, happy Christmas!

john.gill@tesglobal.com

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