The pace and frequency of the challenges hurled at higher education last year brought to mind one of those Japanese game shows, the sort that leaves all involved befuddled and covered in slime.
But don’t expect a let-up – that’s how the format works now.
With the new year upon us, we asked a couple of sages to dust off their crystal balls and survey the fiendish trials ahead.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, identifies three main areas to watch in the UK.
The first is what he sees as the unfinished business of regulation, which he predicts may “come back to bite the minister on the bum”.
Particularly problematic is the way in which some less established institutions will get the respectability of being on the new regulator’s books while being “so loosely regulated that they will only pay £1,000 a year”.
The risk, Hillman says, is that “Panorama will come along and find a problem with one of them”, resulting in doubts about the entire regulatory regime.
A second area to watch, Hillman suggests, is the enduring mismatch between student expectations and reality.
He points to Hepi research that shows that two-thirds of prospective students think that they will get more contact hours at university than at school. Such expectations, along with a lack of transparency about how tuition fees are spent, feed directly into ongoing questions about value for money, which show no sign of abating.
The third area that he flags are the big-ticket issues around Brexit and immigration.
A review by the Migration Advisory Committee into the impact of international students could pave the way for a dignified U-turn from Theresa May, who has long refused to remove students from net migration figures.
In terms of research, Hillman also sees cause for optimism on the UK’s involvement in Framework Programme 9, the European Union funding programme that will succeed Horizon 2020. “I’m quite positive about that; it might not get sorted out in 2018, but I would hope that research was at least in the top half of the [Brexit negotiation] priorities,” he says.
One potential bucket of gloop is the “major review” of funding ordered by the prime minister in the autumn, with details to be revealed imminently.
All eyes will be on whether this constitutes tweaks to the system – interest rates on loans, for example – or something more radical, most likely variable fees in some form.
Looking outside the UK, stories in this year’s first issue of Times Higher Education point to some of the big shifts that are taking place, including a major rethink of funding in Australia.
The end of the demand-led funding “experiment” is assessed in an analysis by Andrew Norton, of the Grattan Institute, and has echoes in both the UK’s abolition of the student number cap and in the increasingly fevered debate about how universities should be funded, and how many people should attend them.
In a recent lecture, Tan highlighted a “fundamental change” in research priorities in China, with a greater emphasis on long-term, basic research, stating that the country was “now on track to be the world’s top R&D spender by 2019”.
In a blog on our website this week, Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at UCL, also picks out China – and its regional influence in particular – as one to watch in 2018.
Nervousness about China’s power and ambition, in light of its divergence on values that are fundamental both to Western democracy and to the established systems of higher education, is explored in our cover story.
But this isn’t an issue of 2018 so much as an issue of our times; we are, after all, now almost two decades into the fabled Asian Century.
Print headline: Slippery climb ahead
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