New Year: the hopes and fears

With the fever of REF results subsiding, we contemplate what 2015 might hold in store for higher education

January 1, 2015

So it’s goodbye 2014, hello 2015; so long research excellence framework, next stop the general election.

Not so fast! Before REF fever fades entirely, we look this week at an alternative ranking of institutions, based on research “intensity”, using data on the proportion of eligible staff submitted. By looking beyond broad indicators such as grade point average and “research power”, these tables aim to cut through the game-playing that has gone on, particularly by those who pursued reputation at the expense of broad-based submissions involving most of their research-active staff.

But while the analysis continues, the arrival of the New Year does begin to move minds on from the frenzy of REF results day to what 2015 has in store for universities and those who work in them.

Many of the issues that are likely to dominate the news are familiar: fees, funding and the research budget; the erosion of part-time study; whether the postgraduate loans scheme will turn the tide; and the clash between Ukippery (and home secretary Theresa May) and the UK as a global centre of higher education.

The grant letter is imminent, the allocation of quality-related research funding is expected in March, then the post-general election spending review

The grant letter is imminent, while the allocation of quality-related research funding, expected in March, and the spending review that will follow the general election also loom large.

But what else might 2015 have in store? In our features pages this week, we ask 20 commentators from across higher education to suggest New Year’s resolutions they would impose on others. Their priorities range from freeing scholars from mindless box-ticking to sorting out the regulation of higher education to fixing the gender pay gap.

And the hopes and fears of those running our universities? Here, in no particular order (and in some cases in conflict with each other), are the offerings from a straw poll of vice-chancellors:

Hopes? “Postgrad loans for all, regardless of age”; “a move on from STEM preoccupations”; “a better understanding of graduate employability”; “that Labour do not give in to the tactically appealing but strategically catastrophic temptation to lower fees to £6K”; “that Hefce bites the bullet and focuses research funding in a way that keeps England competitive”; “that an incoming government respects the autonomy of academics and universities, which society has benefited from for decades”.

And fears? “Research funding shrinking and going only to the fat few”; “that the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ predictions for reductions in the Business, Innovation and Skills departmental budget are implemented after the election”; “for the future supply of teachers to educate the next generation of undergraduates”; “higher education being used as a political football, with unfunded, vote-winning policies”; “that the big get bigger still at the expense of excellence elsewhere”.

So national policy issues preoccupy those in charge; but what about the rank and file – are there more practical, local resolutions for 2015 that could improve day-to-day life? There are plenty of offerings in our feature, and here’s one more suggestion, from a REF-weary lecturer: “Post-REF, my university needs to refocus on teaching and student care.”

As for a hope for the higher education sector as a whole, how about this: universities are among our greatest assets – here’s to a year in which they’re treated as such.

john.gill@tesglobal.com

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