2015: The Year In Higher Education That Was—And What We Can Look Forward To In 2016

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The past year was defined by notable events and trends that are likely to continue into 2016. For example, young students are quite keyed into new technologies, and some courses are successfully incorporating new technologies such as mobile phone and tablet apps for purposes ranging from instant student polls to online study-buddy groups. Gamification has become a better-known buzzword amongst academics seeking new ways to teach.

What other trends have made their mark?

Changing student body.

The biggest of these for many universities has been the notable drop in part-time and mature student numbers, which has hit Continuing Professional Development, access courses, and degree programmes. Coupled with the drop in student numbers from outside the EU—no thanks to new issues around student visas — that has meant some once-popular courses are wobbling, and a few have actually closed.

However, there is also positive news to report. Universities are now free to recruit as many students as they like, and some have experienced measurable benefits from the lifting of the cap. UCAS stats for 2015 show enrolment up by 3.1 percent. Most of that is from UK students, but there was also an 11% increase in successful applications from elsewhere in the EU.

Universities will have to respond by revamping courses to fit these changes. Institutions that are flexible and responsive to these changes may experience growth—and that means more jobs for lecturers.

Removal of grants and bursaries.

All of this is a knock-on effect of the ongoing trend towards higher fees. 2015 also saw the removal of grants and bursaries for almost all UK students. These have been replaced by additional loan burden, which makes mature and part-time students rather more nervous than 18-year-olds who have yet to balance a family budget. The removal of bursaries for nurses and other NHS workers has attracted particular opprobrium when seen alongside staff shortages and low pay.

As this further impacts student numbers, some universities will definitely feel the burn. When coupled with changes to Initial Teacher Training programmes, long the mainstay of some of the institutions most likely to struggle, there could be some serious risks to budgets and jobs ahead.

Disability cuts.

This was also the year that cuts to disabled students’ support were pushed through. From next year, universities will have to pick up the cost of note-takers, mentors and other non-medical staff. Funds for computers and specialised accommodation have also been slashed. Most disability support coordinators expect to see an increased drop-out rate, and less robust recruitment amongst a group of students that universities only recently began to serve relatively well. 

Campus activism. 

Student campaigns around issues like racism and sexism have also rocked some campuses, Oxford may be the best known of these, but similar rows have broken out from Essex to Edinburgh. Targets go far beyond statues of dubious old boys and colonial benefactors, and include university investments (such as fossil fuels and African mines),  controversial campus speakers, and tuition fees. It may be too soon to talk about a new era of global student activism, but there has certainly been an uptick in campus political action in the US, Canada and Europe as well as the UK, with additional actions occurring in Bangladesh and beyond.

For academics, the Teaching Excellence Framework and related policies have sparked debate. With funding caps tied to a measure that most critics find lacking, there are concerns about how the higher education budget will be divided in future.

With the UK higher education sector comprising 2.5 percent of the British economy (Deloitte & Touche, 2015), government insiders and academic critics need to keep a careful eye on the impact of these trends in 2016. The wrong kind of change could kill off the golden goose—and that will be a loss for us all. 


Deloitte & Touche (2015) Making eth Grade 2015: Key Issues Facing the Academic Sector. Online at: http://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/public-sector/deloitte-uk-making-the-grade-2015.pdf

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