What five trends and policy changes are likely to have the greatest impact on academics in 2015? My crystal ball may not be any more prescient than Mystic Meg, but the evidence points to these five areas:
1: Unlimited student numbers
The elimination of the student cap in the 2015-2016 academic year will have a huge impact on everything from university marketing to this spring’s admissions round.
Already some university leaders and lecturers have warned that standards may be compromised as over-recruiting leads to overcrowding. There could also, of course, be more jobs in the offing as programmes expand.
2: Actual and potential immigration limits
The impact of limits on student visas from outside the EU, and onerous reporting requirements, are well-known. With rumblings in Whitehall that EU immigration should also be limited (despite the supposed common market in education across the EU), VCs are aware of how badly such moves could affect HE in particular.
There have also been well-documented issues with staff recruitment from outside the EU—including those who have studied in the UK being refused work visas when offered an early-career post. This may make hiring more difficult for HR, and could result in a more insular world within UK universities.
3: Changes to disability support for students and staff
Following massive cuts to benefits and support for people with disabilities, educators were not expecting that Disabled Students Allowances would also be slashed. Despite vastly increasing the number of disabled people accessing and completing higher education, DSA will now be severely limited. However, as publicly funded institutions universities must still address the inequalities that disabled students face.
This change has universities scrambling to find and fund ways to supply equipment and personal support to students with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties, autism spectrum conditions, mental ill health, and long- and short-term health problems. Those that do not hit the mark face Equalities Act issues. Students who need specialist equipment due to physical or sensory disabilities will not be as greatly impacted as these other groups.
Staff with disabilities may also be affected by cuts to the Access to Work programme and Disabled Living Allowance.
4 “Devo-max” in Scotland and education
The Scottish National Party placed free university tuition for students studying in Scotland as a key plank in their independence agenda. While the 2014 vote didn't go their way, Scotland will negotiate a short-of-independence settlement with the UK this year.
It seems likely that Scotland will wrest the continued ability to set a separate fee and governance structure for HE from the UK. However, some commentators have called out Scottish politicians for doing so at the expense of FE and programmes geared towards workplace skill improvement. Devolution certainly offers scope for innovation across the education sector.
5 Fightback on zero-hour contracts and funding targets
Data is now available on the scale of precarious employment in FE and HE, and there has been outrage over attempts by some universities to tie staying in post with attracting outside funding. Major unions in the sector have started campaigning on these issues, which are of concern to all—particularly following the recent suicide of Imperial College London professor Stefan Grimm, who had been made subject to performance review over not achieving enough grant funding.
The success or failure of these efforts will be decided at a national level, but staff should keep an eye on local developments as well: the career you save may be your own.