It’s September already?
Much as it’s fun to peer into our crystal ball and try to speculate about what the future has in store for universities, it’s worth remembering that this time last year Liz Truss was on the point of taking over from Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.
With a general election on the horizon in 2024 and plenty in the policy pipeline, there’s lots we can see coming – but there’s still potential for wild cards.
We’d love to say that in this pre-election year higher education funding, capacity, and sustainability will be part of the public conversation. Universities and their students and staff continue to feel the pinch as the unit of resource is squeezed.
Industrial action over staff pay and conditions is set to continue, and the real value of student maintenance is being eaten away by inflation – with continued demographic pressure to expand higher education throughout this decade and no obvious discussion about capacity building.
As the government prepares – in principle at least – to roll out the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), a real conversation about the shape of the sector and long term plans for post-compulsory education and lifelong learning would make sense in a different political world.
But higher education may have to settle for the dubious status of being at lowest risk of imminent collapse compared to the various other sectors that are demanding policymakers’ attention.
In what could come to be seen as the longest pre-election period in history, this year the debate will be all about the future of the economy. Labour, with Keir Starmer at the helm, continues to maintain a healthy polling lead over the Conservatives and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and the Tory party’s hopes will be rooted in getting inflation under control to salvage their damaged reputation for economic competence.
Both parties will continue to be wary of making any major post-election spending commitments while the economic outlook appears so bleak. But the real tussle is probably less on the details of interest rates and more on each party’s ability to explain how it would foster sustained economic growth, reinvest in public services, and improve people’s quality of life – something that has felt in short supply at times in Britain in recent years. The party that can reverse the general sentiment that things are very much not getting better is most likely to win the day – though there’s a strong possibility that no party ever quite gets there.
For higher education, the legislative agenda is looking light – and for universities grappling with the implications of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act and the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, that may be all to the good – though we can never rule out surprises in the King’s Speech at the state opening of Parliament on 7 November. Expect tensions to continue around immigration and international education though – especially if changes to rules on dependants which kick in from January 2024 either make too much difference, or not enough. There’ll be debate about skills and apprenticeships, environmental policy, and health – all touching on areas of interest to universities. And DfE has just concluded a call for evidence on the impact of generative AI for education, so we’d expect universities to be called on to offer public reassurance with the shiny new AI policies and dramatic changes to assessment that everyone’s been working up.
We’re still waiting for the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to really flex its policy muscles, with 2022-23 a year of false starts for reviews and flagship policies. Ahead of the general election the government is under pressure to show that ARIA is a good use of public funds, and to deliver some tangible benefits from the massive increase in public funding of research. Association to Horizon Europe will have to be decided one way or the other, and universities are likely to come under continued scrutiny for their international research partnerships. Expect lots of new but small national research agreements outside of Europe, and universities in the spotlight on the grand challenges of sustainability, pandemic prevention, and regional productivity. We’re also due government responses to the Tickell review of research bureaucracy and the Nurse review of the research ecosystem, even as plans take shape for REF 2028.
A regulation debate
It’s a rare year when we don’t think about the state of higher education regulation, but this next one looks to be a particularly vintage moment. Wales, of course will delight in the creation of the Council for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) which is due to start operating in April 2024. Scotland awaits a government response to numerous commissioned reports calling for a rethink of the remit of the venerable Scottish Funding Council. Within all this, the narrow scope of the Office for Students (OfS) in an increasingly tertiary world feels like something of an anomaly – but the action here will be the report and conduct of numerous reviews (the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee, the Department for Education triennial review, a likely examination by the Institute for Government) into the work of England’s higher education regulator.
The UK-wide trend towards seeing post-compulsory education as a single tertiary system will likely feature in future changes to OfS – we know that it will gain responsibility for current advanced learner loan providers, and a consultation is due on regulatory responses to the full range of qualifications offered via the LLE. The more immediate challenges are the basics – the way OfS works with students, the relationships it maintains with providers and with the government, the recent changes to the quality regime, and a seemingly infinite ability to announce investigations unmatched by the capacity to complete them and report results.
Meanwhile, there’s TEF. Expected at the end of September – should the vast number of provider appeals be settled in time – this is the first run out of a new methodology focused as much on provider and student qualitative statements as data. For those who have made their case successfully, painting bits of the campus gold may prompt short term joy – and if any have failed to achieve a TEF rating at all we’ll get to see whether TEF carries the reputational weight it is designed to. But longer term we are watching – given a likely continuation of a time of no new money for universities- for a return of the link to inflationary fee increases.
All the things I could do
The single biggest problem in the first part of the cost of living and inflation we’ve been living through was energy costs – and while students were rarely properly considered, the fact that almost all citizens had their bills kept low meant a level of shielding. During this new phase – where energy bills have not yet fallen substantially and where the cost of food is the big issue – no such universal help is on offer. And while the hotchpotch of maintenance support around the UK is increasingly complex, its shared characteristic is that any increases are significantly behind inflation.
For a large proportion of students living away from home on an all-inclusive basis, rents have risen to cover landlords’ costs – and now given the volumes of students in most university towns and cities growing faster than the available accommodation stock, and given the impact of interest rate rises on buy-to-let landlords, those rents look set to continue to climb as students live further and further away from campus to keep their head above water. And ministers won’t be able to hide from a growing student homelessness problem forever.
More broadly, all the evidence is pointing to serious impacts on engagement – with a growing group of students who are in both the “away from home” and “commuter student” group. That places real pressure on students’ ability to realise value from their participation in higher education, even if the “quality” of the university’s side of the partnership is miraculously maintained as the unit of resource continues to freefall.
In that context, we might expect some of the behind the scenes conflicts over the impacts of industrial action on students to both come to the surface and come to a head. The Competition and Markets Authority maintains that universities are not allowed to limit their liability for non-delivery over strikes on the basis that they are not really as unpredictable or unresolvable as every university’s student contract suggests. Whether the “student group claim” proceeds to court or not, that impasse will need to be broken soon.
Wellbeing on our minds
Last academic year’s questions about the scope of universities’ responsibility to protect students from harm – and what level of regulation is needed to ensure those responsibilities are upheld – have not gone away over the summer. As part of the settlement following a parliamentary debate over universities’ duty of care, the Westminster government has charged student support champion and Nottingham Trent University vice chancellor Edward Peck with chairing a government taskforce on student mental health to explore identifying students at risk, compassionate communications, and the adoption of mental health charters. DfE will also commission an independent national review of student suicides.
As the work progresses, campaigners will continue to press for legislation on a duty of care, which the government has not categorically ruled out. Universities are nervous about the prospect of litigating student harm cases, which would be resource intensive and painful both for litigants and institutions, but may also find it a challenge to implement recommendations on student wellbeing at a pace that satisfies ministerial impatience.
On the broader theme of regulating student wellbeing in England, OfS is expected to publish the outcome of its consultation on a new condition of registration to ensure that students are protected from harassment and sexual misconduct. If implemented, the new condition will require institutions to produce evidence of their steps to prevent sexual harassment and misconduct, outline their steps in handling incidents and allegations, their support for people making allegations, people who are subject to allegations, and people to the side of allegations, and what training they will give to all students and staff.
OfS will also be running a prevalence survey to understand the nature and extent of sexual misconduct in the sector. Chief executive Susan Lapworth has indicated that the regulator may be especially interested in institutions that have a low level of internal complaints but a high level of prevalence compared to benchmarks.
What has happened to the DfE Data Burden Taskforce? No – don’t skip this para, it’s important. As an ever-diverse group of providers deliver higher education, and as existing providers dip toes into other parts of the tertiary system, many have noticed that the time and effort spent delivering nearly the same data (in slightly different formats) to the various regulators and bits of government is getting a bit silly. The dream is, of course, of an omnipotent and omniscient HESA collecting once, and other data users getting their needs met via Cheltenham rather than your overstretched academic registry.
From such noble aims sprang the beauty of HEDIPP (don’t worry), which begat the much less loved Data Futures – and in 2023-24 we finally see the fruits of this epic endeavour, in the form of the publication of 2022-23 data (the first collected using the new DF model) as we lead up to 2024-25 and in-year collection. Will this dataset yield the insight everyone needs – across the whole tertiary endeavour? No. But it moves closer to that situation, and underlines just how much work even small changes to data collection and use can mean.
The sector’s least appreciated dataset – HESA Estates – is likely to get a shot in the arm this coming year as DfE starts looking for meaningful data on sector carbon emissions. Incredibly this data is optional in current practice (to the extent that providers have to pay extra to submit it, though most do). A requirement could prompt a wider examination of what we know, and what we need to know, about university estates – with thinking about student capacity something that could be greatly informed by this.
Of course there’s much more of the underpinnings of the sector in flux – we can look forward to the huge changes that will be wrought by the LLE defined by a series of regulatory consultations (and the passage of the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill. We’re expecting more and deeper data on the sometimes murky world of franchise and partnership delivery. And we look to possible regulatory reform to address some of the mess that has developed in England around quality assurance.