2017 – A year in higher education

     
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2017, a period of change and uncertainty. The higher education (HE) sector has found itself under scrutiny this year, and like other areas of UK industry some aspects have been found wanting. Here’s an overview of some of the main issues and news stories that emerged in this year.

Tough at the top

If you have the word ‘chancellor’ in your job title, it’s likely that you’ve been in the spotlight this year as staff, students and the media focused in on your earning power. The backlash centred around the perceived gap between the leadership qualities of the most senior staff members and the related pay levels. Some have said a lack of transparency has fuelled this particular fire; had institutions been more open about specific pay amounts and ‘showed their working out’, then levels of tension may not have risen to the extent they did.

It’s a challenge to wade through the myriad data that informs university performance levels, never mind calculate to whom we can attribute the successes. It would be hard to deny the need for strong and skilful management within H.E. in modern times, and it wouldn’t be fair to discredit some of the good work done by our university leaders. How much we should pay for such leadership is still very much in debate.

Exit strategy

There was much conjecture about the B-word in 2017, but did we learn anything about the actual impact on H.E.? Not really. We asked for information on the UK’s research partnership with the EU, we demanded answers on the future of EU staff and students in our community, we speculated on the future of study abroad and Erasmus schemes. Some shouted for a second referendum, and all in all a sense of gloom pervaded.

It seems for the most part we have reconciled ourselves to the fact the Brexit is going to happen. We can only hope that 2018 brings with it some clarity, enabling our sector to respond and plan for the future, whatever shape it may take.

The TEF

Introduced in June, there was plenty of concern around the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and how it could further the UK H.E. industry as a marketplace. Overall it seems that UK students are able to see the bigger picture, and there was little evidence of the TEF making a significant impact on their choices.

This has not necessarily been the case for international applicants, and a rise in the number of searches made for ‘gold’ institutions by overseas applicants has been observed. It’s understandable that when applying at a distance that rankings and standards have an increased weighting. It’s now essential that the sector works together to try to ensure that the TEF provides and accurate and balanced picture of our institutions.

Funding

October saw the announcement of a tuition fee freeze and a higher earnings threshold for those repaying student loans. Protests around university fees and free education continue, as Labour announced plans to scrap fees altogether should they get into power; a popular idea on campus and with young people across the UK. We have been promised a review of university fees and funding, including maintenance grants, by the current government. We must wait and see if 2018 will herald any changes.

Whilst it can seem that our industry is in a period of unrest, we have to focus on being the drivers for positive change. HE in the UK has much to be proud of! Here’s to 2018.

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