Hopes and fears of all the year

It’s been bedlam out there in 2013: Russell Group a-rising, visa plans off-putting - and still not enough ladies leading

December 19, 2013

“Christmas time, mistletoe and whine.” It is traditional at this time of year to rewrite a cheery yuletide song as a vehicle for reviewing the year’s triumphs and tribulations. But rather than labour through a single song, here’s an alternative Christmas hit parade taking a sleigh ride through 12 months of higher education highs and lows…

Ding Dong Merrily on High (less merrily elsewhere): the Russell Group strengthened its grip on the “elite” tag in 2013, cementing its “brand” in the minds of ambitious sixth-formers and teachers. Its membership is stellar, but a growing focus on reputation in the academy is a source of unease for many. Meanwhile, the 1994 Group closed in November, having failed to nail down an identity other than as a Russell Group waiting room.

All I Want for Christmas Is You (if your publication record is any good): in a frantic year for those involved in research excellence framework submissions, top researchers were in high demand. As poachers eyed the choicest meat, vice-chancellors exchanged murderous mutterings (“They offered one of my people £200,000 – and he’s not even a medic”).

The government unwrapped an early Christmas present to top them all with its announcement that the student numbers cap is to be ditched altogether

Frosty the (Theresa May-shaped) Snowman: the chill directed at international students hardly thawed, regardless of the season. In October, one paid-up student from India was refused entry after exchange rate fluctuations knocked his bank balance a measly £20 below the £7,200 required to cover maintenance costs. How low can we go?

O Come (back), All Ye Faithful: after last year’s dip, applications bounced back, with total undergraduate enrolments rising almost 7 per cent. Even Vince Cable, the business secretary, was surprised, remarking in September: “We look forward much more positively than I would have thought possible three to six months ago.”

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday: and it was for private providers, many of whom filled their boots/stockings with students bearing gifts (subsidised loans). The festivities were cancelled in November when the government capped their recruitment, but just days later it unwrapped an early Christmas present to top them all with its announcement that the student numbers cap is to be ditched altogether by 2015-16.

When a Child Is Born (start saving): students seem to have taken the new fee regime in their stride (note the healthy application rates), but concerns about its sustainability remain (if anything heightened by the plans to allow unfettered recruitment within two years). It has also become clear that many UK parents think they have to start saving for a US-style “college fund” as soon as tiny feet start pattering.

White (male) Christmas: the academy’s problem with diversity (or lack thereof) has been highlighted by Times Higher Education throughout 2013. Just 12 per cent of university council chairs, 17 per cent of vice-chancellors and 21 per cent of professors are female. It is not nearly enough.

Happy Xmas (War Is Over): but not for long. The higher education reforms have had many unintended consequences, but they have achieved one of their aims – increasing levels of competition. After a couple of well-earned days off, battle will recommence on  December.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas – from all at THE.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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