Spending cuts and immigration policies are likely to force increased differentiation on the university sector, but there is a risk of a “car crash” if this is bluntly imposed.
That is the view of Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, who told a conference that UK higher education was likely to become less homogeneous over the course of the next Parliament in key areas such as funding and student visa sponsorship.
With universities in the firing line for further significant cuts, Sir Steve questioned whether these could be applied evenly across the board or whether the Treasury would ask institutions to “specialise in what they are good at”.
Such a system may recognise the high costs of universities that are “central to the research base” in contrast to those that “do unbelievable amounts of heavy lifting on widening participation”.
“The trick is how not to turn differentiation into a hierarchy but, given the public funding pressures, I find it difficult to see how you can fund everything equally when institutions are doing different things,” Sir Steve said.
At a time of declining public spending, Sir Steve said that many universities were looking to fill the shortfall in their income by recruiting increasing numbers of international students.
But this could be hampered by a significant divide between the ambition of Jo Johnson, the universities minister, to increase education exports to £30 billion by 2020, and the Home Office’s desire to reduce immigration.
Sir Steve said that he believed that there was “a bit of a car crash coming” since, in such a scenario, differentiation may again be the solution that the government settles on.
Some universities may be given increased access to student visas while, for others, recruitment may be restricted, he said.
Speaking to Times Higher Education after his speech, Sir Steve said that it was important that institutions that focused on widening participation should still have access to the international market.
Variation should be based on objective standards, such as visa application refusal rates, rather than crude factors such as mission group membership, he argued.
“We need a genuinely careful and nuanced conversation so it isn’t just ‘these five institutions, we should let them do what they want and the others should struggle’,” Sir Steve told THE. “We have got excellence across the system but don’t think that excellence means the same if you are the vice-chancellor of Oxford or if you are the vice-chancellor of Teesside.”
In his speech at a conference on the international student experience, organised by Universities UK and the UK Higher Education International Unit, Sir Steve said that another area of potential variation was the government’s planned sale of the student loan book. Exeter was one of the universities that talked to the government last year about buying its share of the loan book.
But Sir Steve added that it was questionable whether such a solution is possible for every institution since the portion of loan outlay that will never be repaid by graduates is estimated to vary between institutions from 5 per cent to 85 per cent.