Hang on for a bumpy 2009 - the year of living dangerously

What do key players in higher education predict for the coming months? Most find cause for optimism amid the gloom

January 1, 2009

DAVID LAMMY
Higher Education Minister

The university sector will play an important role supporting local businesses and individuals through the economic downturn, helping to ensure that the country emerges stronger from the current turbulence.

Applications to university for 2009 will build on the substantial increases seen in the past two years and hit a new all-time high. There will be an increasing appreciation of the role that universities can play in shaping our response to climate change, as more look to develop sustainable campuses as well as leading world-class research into the issues.

In the UN International Year of Reconciliation, we will see a renewed effort to resolve the Middle East conflict and will end 2009 closer to peace.

X Factor winner Alexandra Burke will land a Grammy award.

JOHN CRAVEN
Vice-chancellor, University of Portsmouth

I'm an economist, so I am allowed two opinions on this.

Either: the Government's announcement of future tax rises and spending cuts will prevent the Keynesian fiscal stimulus from working. Unemployment will rise rapidly, and the Government will hang on, hoping for a miracle, until mid-2010.

Or: the stimulus will reduce the depth and length of the recession. Gordon Brown will call an election in May 2009. Portsmouth will not win the FA Cup but will just survive in the Premiership.

LAURENCE WOOD
Head of college, Canterbury, University for the Creative Arts

The emergence of the National Staff Survey for higher education staff working with final-year undergraduate students: Times Higher Education will survey its readers and collate the questions to be included, and the deadline for completion of the questionnaire will be 1 April.

The combined voices of Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and Jesse Jackson will stand alongside the Three Tenors as one of the world's greatest-ever ensembles.

A return to conceptual art practice and white-on-white minimalism as the genres of choice for credit-crunched art students due to the price of coloured paint going through the roof, and all skips being empty because the building industry has closed. Buy Rio Tinto in February, perhaps.

Oh, and a horse will probably win the Grand National.

BOB BURGESS
Vice-chancellor, University of Leicester

The year ahead will be characterised by continuing turbulence and unpredictability in the sector. Under these conditions, universities that make the right decisions - financially or otherwise - stand to do very well; those that fail to respond with flexibility and forethought could lose ground. One opportunity is presented by the Government's call for institutions to consider how they can help employers during these difficult times.

Never has Lord Dearing's vision for the creation of "compacts" between universities, business and industry seemed more relevant. This work has only just begun, but its success is vital for the UK's economy as well as the future of the sector, which will inevitably find fund-raising more challenging.

The downturn is likely to act as a catalyst for modernisation of the sector in a variety of ways. It seems likely that a growing number of institutions will follow Leicester and a handful of other universities and bring their management and governance structures into the 21st century. Leicester is poised to streamline its decision-making processes by moving from faculties to colleges next year.

DAVID WILLETTS
Shadow Universities Secretary

I have no doubt that this year will see the Government further delaying its tuition fees review. But I can also say that 2009 will see constant pressure from my team to bring it forward.

I wager that the Government will fail to get anywhere near its 2010 target of getting 50 per cent of young people to university. I fear that young people will continue to be let down. The opportunities that should be provided to those not in education, employment or training are unlikely to materialise this side of a general election.

It is probable that the Government will continue to dig its heels in on its recent withdrawal of funding for second-chance (ELQ) students and the indefensible regime of funding for part-time students. Yet as the recession gets worse, reskilling should become more important than ever.

For me personally, I hope to complete a book I'm writing on fairness between the generations. And who knows, there might be a Conservative general election victory, and it could come sooner rather than later.

SUZANNE FRANKS
Director of research, Centre for Journalism, University of Kent

President Obama will face accusations of betrayal, probably by the last week in January.

Applications by British students to Ivy League institutions will continue to increase. A national newspaper will close down.

On Thursday 13 August there will be newspaper pictures of (attractive) 18-year-olds opening envelopes and hugging each other and accompanying headlines about "grade inflation" and "dumbing down".

At least one post-92 university will initiate merger discussions with another. The popularity of vocational courses will soar - so, for example, thousands of applicants may think twice about selecting media studies in favour of rigorous professional and academic training in journalism.

Lord Mandelson (the Business Secretary) will face calls to resign.

University life will continue to involve lots of (very) lengthy meetings.

DEIAN HOPKIN
Vice-chancellor, London South Bank University

After the remarkable twists and turns of 2008, predictions may be unwise for 2009.

Economic change will cast a long shadow, not least over higher education. Even if there is a snap general election this year, the economic equation will be the same for all parties, limiting their freedom of action.

Let us hope, however, that despite the financial crisis, careful attention is paid to the longer-term sustainability of our society - and widening participation to higher education is central to that.

And after the fallout from the research assessment exercise has settled, will there still be any real recognition of the value of every type of institution, each of which makes its distinctive contribution to the economy? If universities are to play their part in helping UK plc in 2009, then it has to be a collective effort.

I can, however, safely predict one thing in 2009: in March I will stop paying national insurance, after 42 years, and in April I will hand over the reins to Martin Earwicker. I wish him as much happiness as I have enjoyed at London South Bank with its marvellous staff and students.

SARAH SPURGEON
Professor of engineering, University of Leicester

The vital role of engineering in tackling the world's challenges in energy, healthcare and global security will be recognised.

The credit crunch will encourage more young people to consider (studying) science, engineering and maths subjects, enhancing future possibilities for economic growth, prosperity and wellbeing.

Research excellence will cease to be the domain of individuals and academic units with a deep but sometimes narrow field of interest, and more effective ways will be found to recognise the essential role of interdisciplinary working in making significant advances.

Southeastern Trains' high-speed service will revolutionise journey times from Kent, facilitating links with the UK and continental Europe.

STEVE SMITH
Chair, 1994 Group, and president-elect, Universities UK

I wish I could say that Norwich City will reach the play-offs (for promotion to the Premier League), but that doesn't look very likely.

Perhaps an obvious point, but it's going to be a difficult year for higher education - recession, rising utility bills, a potentially difficult pay settlement, higher pension contributions and so on. Nevertheless, strong universities that have planned their finances well will emerge stronger when the recession ends.

Universities will increasingly play to their strengths, and this diversity of excellence will benefit the UK enormously. Adding to this process will be the effects of the research assessment exercise, which will result in a big shake-up of funding when universities get their grant letters.

The international market will become more competitive. Not only will the recession have an effect on numbers applying to UK universities, but we will see more players competing for those students. We will have to work hard to maintain our market share in the face of increasing competition from places such as Australia and New Zealand.

A general election in the first half of the year: Gordon Brown must surely be tempted to take advantage of the rise in the polls resulting from his handling of the recession.

RICK TRAINOR
President, Universities UK

Despite the recession, the sector will retain widespread support for the importance of universities to the future of the UK's economy, society and culture.

As spending decisions and a general election draw nearer, there will be intense speculation about the more immediate levels and methods of higher education funding, but there will be less disagreement within the sector about student fees than outside observers expect.

Fuelled by the results of the 2008 research assessment exercise, the domestic league table industry will go into overdrive while world league tables, in which the UK-specific RAE does not feature, gain additional attention both at home and overseas.

Industrial relations in UK higher education will become tenser as contract negotiations approach, but a mutually acceptable solution on pay and pensions will be found against the backdrop of the world's intense economic problems (I am an optimist by nature!).

DENNIS HAYES
Head of the Centre for Professional Education, Canterbury Christ Church University

A university education for its own sake, the sort once considered "a bit dodgy", will be the new fashion. After years of vocationalising higher education, the looming economic recession will make it impossible to promote degrees as the gateways to good jobs.

The danger is that the "education" on offer might not be based on academic disciplines but (will be) therapeutic. Degrees in happiness and emotional wellbeing could be the new media studies.

Tinkering with the financial markets will only delay the realisation that Britain's unproductive expenditure on public services cannot be sustained by a poor economy. Savage cuts in the public sector are only a matter of time, despite the fact that having up to 50 per cent of young people in universities keeps them off the streets. It is guesswork to say when and where cuts will come, but work-related and professional programmes may well be the first to go.

The good news for 2009 is publishing. Book sales have fallen by only 0.5 per cent. The bad news here is that it is escapism that sells. It is time to put Deconstructing Multiple and Fragile Male Subjectivities in the bin, and start writing a Mills and Boon, which is perhaps not such a bad thing after all.

LES EBDON
Chair, Million+

Obama fervour in April when the new president visits the UK, and a US fiscal package will make FDR's (Franklin Delano Roosevelt's) initiatives seem small scale.

A general election will present an opportunity for universities to restate the critical relationship between higher education, social cohesion and the economy. There will be more government recognition of the significance of transnational education partnerships, and a holistic fees and funding review will take the issues of part-time and mature students seriously.

Spurs will retain the Carling Cup and win the FA Cup (hope over adversity).

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