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Positive perspective

Mary Stuart looks backwards—and forwards—at the higher education landscape

About eight years ago, I shared a platform with the former universities minister David Willetts. We were asked what we thought would be the big topics of the day in higher education in 2020. I am never keen to forecast the future as we tend to interpret it based on our current experience, but when you are on a platform, you have to answer the question.

I spoke about climate change and what the sector should be doing to get its own house in order, equity in higher education and how we could make ourselves more relevant to wider society. David said he thought we would still be talking about fees and higher education funding.

While neither of us predicted a pandemic, which overwhelmed everyone in 2020, we were both right about the other topics. Despite considerable change over the past decade, we are still talking about fees and the funding of higher education, and we are still talking about its relevance to society and about climate change and equality.

As a bit of a historian (still), I am going to look back to look forward.

Looking back

It has been a real pleasure over the past 12 years to serve my community and the University of Lincoln, from which I am stepping down as vice-chancellor this month. It has been an eventful time—certainly at Lincoln, but also more widely, with huge transformation in the higher education policy landscape.

Grant funding for teaching has almost completely disappeared and the student loan system has replaced the bulk of higher education funding. Higher education policy has split between the nations of the UK. And in England we have seen the abolition of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, replaced by a regulator for students and teaching quality.

This landscape has provided a new set of prescriptions—but also opportunities—for different higher education providers.

We have seen government blow hot and cold about international student recruitment, and we have seen a major reshaping of the purpose and assessment of research—from a system entirely focused on quality papers and esteem, to one that seeks to assess the impact of research for the value of society.

All of these changes have altered English higher education—some more than others. They have also created a different environment for providers. Some have been able to use the changes to their benefit, while others have struggled to maintain their position.

The current picture

After such a huge transformation, some might think we are due a settling down period over the next few years, but it is clear the government believes the transformation is only partly complete. Over the past few months, we have seen a number of new bills coming before parliament that will see even greater transformation.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is already causing great reflection and concern in the sector, while the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill is pulling out key elements of the 2018 Augar Review, providing opportunities for some higher education providers, and for further education.

Alongside this, the English regulator has a new chair and will shortly have a new director for fair access and participation. A consultation is taking place on quality, there is a review of standards and admissions into higher education and, coming soon, a review of the Teaching Excellence Framework, expected to include a greater emphasis on graduate outcomes beyond their initial undergraduate degree.

On top of all of this, a new secretary of state for education, Nadhim Zahawi, will be reviewing his department’s priorities at the very moment that the Comprehensive Spending Review is being tied up. The CSR is likely to suggest some sort of change to the fee regime for home undergraduate students, while other changes to entry to higher education are likely to follow at some point.

We are now in a demographic upturn in the number of 18-year-olds, with implications for student funding and, in particular, the question of whether a cap on student numbers will need to be reintroduced.

While government is keen for more young people to go on to further education and/or take on an apprenticeship or other technical qualifications, recruitment figures for this year suggest there still seems to be a strong desire to study at university. Meanwhile, current policy on international students is providing the most positive environment we have seen for some time, and many universities are full.

Next year we will receive the results of the Research Excellence Framework and we await further confirmation of how, if at all, the REF results will play out with the promised 2.4 per cent of GDP for research and development.

The sector should also be paying attention to developments in the ministry of housing, communities and local government, now led by Michael Gove. Town Deals and other levelling up activities in the department and in No 10 offer opportunities for those institutions that work closely with their regions and support that agenda.

Looking ahead

In the end, my view is, as it has always been, that you need to see the opportunities in any policy environment and seek to take the best principled advantage you can for the sake of your institution, your students, your academic community and wider society. Whatever one might think of policy, at whatever time, the key is to find the positives, find the opportunities; they are there, along with the challenges.

I remain enormously proud of our sector. We provide a huge contribution to ‘Global Britain’ and will seek ways to continue doing so. Different institutions approach their students, their teams and wider communities in different ways, but there is a much greater understanding than there used to be of the importance of working with our locales, as well as internationally, and that can only be a good thing.

The sector will respond to the changing environment and will try to hold onto the values that higher education has always espoused.

The issues that David and I made predictions about eight years ago remain on the agenda. I hope we continue to engage fully in the mitigation of climate changes for our world, that we seek to further equality within our institutions and society, and that we continue to pay attention to our purpose in our communities.

These issues should all be on our agendas. And, yes, we will continue to talk about fees and the funding of higher education.

We need a sustainable solution to enable the sector to continue to play its part in supporting our society and a fair system for students—and in particular graduates—through their lives. It will be challenging, I am sure, but I have faith in our sector’s ability to do it.

Mary Stuart retires as vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln this month.