A long, hot autumn for UK higher education

The mercury has fallen, but an alarming number of issues threaten to ignite and, potentially, give the UK sector some painful burns

August 30, 2018
A sunburned man
Source: Alamy

A summer of heatwaves and wildfires is beginning to wind down, but British universities face the prospect of being scorched on several fronts this autumn.

Brexit brinkmanship is the first thing to keep them sweating – the fear is that universities will win their battles on the benefits of continued interaction with the European Union yet still lose the war.

The aim is for a draft divorce deal to be on the table by the end of October, with the final European Council meeting in mid-December said to be the last practical date for agreement.

But higher education will not be a priority in the negotiations, so the obvious mutual benefits of a deal for research and student mobility could easily fall victim to any Article 50 impasse.

If so, the short-term pledge to guarantee funding for EU projects to 2020 would be cold comfort.

Also smouldering on the horizon is England’s higher education funding review, a fire started by the Labour opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, when he pledged to abolish tuition fees before the last general election.

This was credited with firing up young voters in particular, but it is hard to see how it can be delivered without a major shift on public spending, the unit of resource or student numbers.

As for the review, it is obvious that the status quo won’t wash, and minor tweaks are also unlikely to offer a politically appetising alternative to the free education pledge.

Policymakers, in short, are in a hotspot – but they do at least have the opportunity to address some of the missteps of recent funding reforms, which have had such a disastrous impact on part-time study.

What other incendiaries lie ahead? Pensions is an obvious one. The Universities Superannuation Scheme, one of the largest private pension schemes in the UK, is a burning platform, according to its trustees, with what they claim is a (hotly disputed) £7.5 billion deficit.

This, of course, was the issue that caused months of discontent earlier this year, with the most significant university strike for an age.

The joint expert panel that is reviewing the health of the USS is due to submit an initial report in September – and it is a safe bet that fireworks await.

Unlike picket line braziers, one potential source of comforting warmth for UK universities is the long-awaited report from the Migration Advisory Committee, also due this autumn.

It is hoped that the review – commissioned by Amber Rudd before she fell on her sword as home secretary – will pave the way for the removal of students from net migration figures and, potentially, a rethink of the UK’s post-study work visa rules.

Universities have, quite rightly, lobbied long and hard for the change on the migration count (again, a battle that by almost any measure bar the prime minister’s they won long ago), but arguably a shift on post-study visas would have greater implications for future student flows.

If Britain is to deliver on its post-Brexit dream of being a global broker (as opposed to simply going broke), then steps to reverse trends such as the decline in students from India will be vital – as will international fees if the funding review seeks to reduce the financial burden on domestic students.

Universities have plenty of fires to fight, then, and the burning issues cast an even less favourable light on current populist obsessions that are dominating the discussion about higher education.

The media and ministerial attention may be on allegedly rampant abuse of freedom of speech, the need for universities to act in loco parentis, and higher education recast as a service sector in which efficiencies can be driven by price comparison websites.

But to focus on such straw men looks increasingly like fiddling while Rome burns. Be in no doubt that these exaggerated concerns are also damaging the global reputation of one of the country’s most prized assets. For those not directly involved in UK higher education, the assumption will be that there is no smoke without fire.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: A long, hot autumn

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