The year ahead: marketisation and reputation

Stories about grade inflation, unconditional offers and clearing have dominated the HE headlines since the spring. We asked the UK’s top higher education leaders and wonks for their thoughts on regulation, marketisation and reputation in 18-19.

Growing Pains

David Morris, Vice Chancellor’s policy adviser at the University of Greenwich

This year we’ll really begin to see some of the real consequences of the uncapped market coming into play, both in the day-to-day operations of universities and in the national policy debate. Within universities, four full years of market volatility will finally begin to bite. We’ll see more high profile stories of some universities running into trouble, with cuts to staff or estates required following a loss of market share. And we might begin to see how success in the recruitment market affects the comings and goings of senior leaders.

Nationally, the debate will likely be dominated by concerns regarding lowering of entry criteria and unconditional offers. But Damian Hinds and Sam Gyimah will find they have few tools at their disposal to back up their criticisms of the sector, given the recent legislation which explicitly protects universities’ autonomy in admissions. Concerns about unconditional offers might feed into the ongoing funding review, but it’s difficult to see the Tories reneging on the supposedly flagship policy of uncapping numbers.

Inspector Wexford, there’s been a merger

Matt Robb, managing director of EY-Parthenon in the UK

Looking at institutional recruitment, alongside demographic headwinds, apprenticeships and online, the challenge at the mid-and-lower-ranked institutions will get worse. It doesn’t look like even great TEF scores will change this. The institutional responses to this are still mostly pretty modest: some are undertaking more substantial transformations but most are just trimming and even fewer (if any) are looking at more radical interventions such as mergers. But the biggest problem with getting mergers to happen is a combination of governance and incentives. I don’t see an easy solution to this problem.

Listening and acting on criticism

Dan Beynon, Head of Education at SMRS

We need to demonstrate much more clearly that Universities (and their leaders) are listening and acting. Much of the criticism levelled at HE is legitimate so the sector needs to take action to transform both itself and in turn the opinion of some of the public. This can be achieved through greater transparency relating to fees, funding and value; an even more proactive approach to the big issues (diversity, mental health, social mobility, relationships with business) and a collective and authentic approach to sharing all that is great in UK HE.

From the perspective of marketing and communications the challenge is to make all that we do much more personal. Despite the headlines most universities generate very significant organic interest from potential students. Top of funnel engagement is huge. Success now lies in building much stronger relationships after that initial contact and making sure that we make the most of all the moments that matter during an applicant’s journey. Provision is no longer one size fits all and nor should our communications be. This isn’t about superficial campaign communications.  We need to get personal and provide a customer experience that people will love.

A quality approach

Douglas Blackstock, CEO at QAA

The outside world is pretty confused about why the UK sector, which most experts regard as world leading, is seemingly constantly under attack. Ideally the various parties will come together to project a coherent and convincing message to the rest of the world about the quality arrangements in the UK, and how we guarantee the quality of UK provision overseas.

We will see fewer applications for new degree awarding powers than many predict, from serious providers that is. My experience on the Advisory Committee on Degree Awarding Powers is that providers that know the value and strength of their own brand seldom apply prematurely. Conversely, OfS may get a lot of applications from ill-advised providers who think the new streamlined route means it is easy to get DAPs when in fact the tests are robust. Meanwhile a new UK Centre for Academic Integrity will be established based within QAA, demonstrating to the world that our world-class sector is at the forefront of combatting the global problem of diploma, degree and essay mills- ideally endorsed by ministers across the nations.

Big issues but lots of distractions

Chris Husbands, Sheffield Hallam VC

We will have an independent review of TEF and the first full year of OfS regulation, with registration already approvals landing in the email inbox. Regulation, finance, and quality assessment are all big moving parts in a sector which has changed markedly over the past five years.  

All of this will be played out against continuing demographic shifts in the UK – the further fall in the number of eighteen year olds – and globally rapidly shifting flows of international HE participation.   And all this at a time when the media show every signs not just of subjecting universities (rightly) to public scrutiny but (more worryingly) to have lost some faith in the importance and power of the sector. The sector will need to engage with noisy, uncomfortable debate and its critics, shaping the future of higher education in ways which work for communities as well as students, and keeping an eye on the big issues at a time when there’ll be lots of distractions.

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