Long-term forecast: grey will go, leaving clear sky between elite and rest

Research will be focused in just 25 universities by 2025 as the UK sector becomes increasingly stratified, higher education experts have predicted.

October 25, 2012

Tuition fees will have reached £15,000 a year at some institutions, and the UK’s share of the foreign student market will have dropped sharply, according to a report published in the latest edition of Higher Education Quarterly.

Based on the consensus of 44 senior figures from higher education who were surveyed in April 2011, researchers at the University of Bath and the University of Twente in the Netherlands outlined a vision of the UK university sector by 2025.

The soothsaying exercise was designed to spell out where the coalition reforms to higher education funding would lead the sector over the next decade.

A “clearly segregated” sector will have emerged by 2025, with universities no longer able to operate in the “greyish zone between research-intensive and teaching-orientated”, says the report, titled “The Future of English Higher Education: Two Scenarios on the Changing Landscape”.

There will be about 25 research-intensive universities and 70 other higher education institutions, which will include 12 well-established private providers in England, it predicts.

Only a few universities will have been forced to close, although some will have merged or been taken over by private providers, it adds.

“A shake-out of the system, as in the demise of many universities, did not occur, if only because the governments in place in the 2010s did not want to go in the history books as the governments that closed 20 per cent of its institutions,” the report says.

It also predicts that the policy of allowing unlimited recruitment of students with grades of AAB or better at A level or the equivalent will be scrapped within a few years. Its legacy will turn out to be the consolidation of high-achieving students within Russell Group universities, it adds.

The report, which was commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, also predicts that the tuition fee cap will be lifted in 2018, allowing highly ranked universities to raise undergraduate fees to £15,000 a year.

Less prestigious universities will be forced to hold fees near £9,000 a year, while variable fees will end up being charged for different disciplines as the sector recognises that charging the same “sticker price” for all subjects is “untenable”.

Meanwhile, foreign students will be scared off by high fees and will instead look to continental Europe and Asia for cheaper courses that are of a similar standard and are also delivered in English.

Fewer students from poor backgrounds will attend university in 2025, the report says. Instead, they will opt for low-cost courses tailor-made for industry and delivered in further education colleges, or training in the vocational sector.

The report also posits a “counter-scenario” for UK higher education in 2025, in which the state has taken a greater role after market-led reforms led to a crisis in the sector in 2015.

In its wake, many universities have been forced by financial pressures to merge, leading to the creation of 40 large regional universities that draw most of their students from local communities.

Alongside these “grand universities” is a “Super Six” of highly selective institutions able to charge higher tuition fees and attract the best researchers.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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