2014: The Academic Year That Was

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It’s been a turbulent year in UK education—there’s no way to say otherwise. This article provides a run-down of the developments and events that have been the talk of university and FE staff rooms, changes that will continue to have repercussions in years to come. 

Student cap lifted in HE 

This autumn, the lifting of the student cap in HE began, with 30,000 more undergraduate places available. This has certainly had a major but mixed impact across the sector: for some, it meant the possibility of finally expanding popular but oversubscribed courses. For others, it meant a greater struggle to find enough high-quality students to keep courses afloat. Universities are starting to assess the ramifications now in preparation for 2015-2016, when the cap will be gone altogether.

Narrowing participation.

From this year’s introduction of the 24+ Advanced Learning Loan for adult students in FE to the fact that half of British schools delivered not a single applicant to Medicine courses this year, many in the education sector are increasingly concerned about the fate of the widening participation agenda. 

Private universities and public scandals.

A strongly worded National Audit Office report raked over the high cost to the public and low return to students displayed by private higher education institutions in Britain. With annual funding for students at private universities soaring in four years from £30 million to £900 million, this was justifiably headline news. As has been the case elsewhere, it appears that such universities have been able to grab a large share of student loan funding, but often delivered poor-quality teaching and had high drop-out rates. In addition, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been conducting an investigation into non-UK students at private universities claiming student support to which they may not be entitled.

The spread of zero-hour contracts in FE and HE.

It came as a surprise to many old-timers in the sector when national and local surveys this year revealed the scope of zero-hour contracts (and other forms of precarious work) in British colleges and universities. This trend adopted from the US, where the majority of academic staff are temporary workers, has caused career disruption and stagnation for many in the education workforce. 

One bright spot…

Amongst the doom, gloom and concern there is a glimmer of hope. Recent figures from the Department for Education suggest that children from the poorest backgrounds are now achieving better results in core Key Stage 2 subjects than they were in the past. The improved results continued for children who began school with English as their second language. If these gains can be maintained through secondary and on into FE and HE, it will mean a better future for pupils who currently often fail to achieve.

As shown by UK higher education’s continued strong presence in international rankings, British teaching and research has retained its high profile. While new policies and economic trends may buffet the sector, those working within FE and HE strive to deliver quality experiences for students and world-class research outputs.

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