HERB, TEF and Brexit – a maelstrom of change

In this post to accompany the Exhibitor briefing for the UCISA17 Conference, UCISA Executive Director Peter Tinson considers the current political landscape and its impact on the education sector.

The machinations of leaving the European Union continue to feature strongly in the news headlines and this is likely to be the case at least until there is some clarity on the UK’s future relationship with the remainder of the EU (and probably for some time after that). However, the impact of Brexit is already being felt by higher education institutions. The number of EU students applying for undergraduate study through UCAS fell by 7% from last year contributing to an overall decline in applications at the January UCAS deadline. Although UCAS receives a good proportion of applications after this deadline, since most of these come from groups that have seen the steepest decline in applications (international, EU and older (19+) students), there are little grounds for optimism that the numbers will recover.

In addition to Brexit, the Government policy of placing tighter restrictions on visas for non-EU students has also had an impact. Since 2010, when the Coalition Government came to power, the number of international students has fallen by around 43,000. The fall has been concentrated in the middle and lower ranking institutions and contrasts with other higher ranked institutions that have increased their international student intake, in some cases substantially. In England, this compounds the effect of competition for undergraduate places that resulted when the cap on student numbers was withdrawn. The more successful institutions have managed (and in many cases, planned) to increase undergraduate student numbers with the lower ranked institutions failing to attract their target numbers. As a consequence, the gap between the most successful and those that depend on student recruitment will continue to grow.

There is potentially some good news for the sector with the publication of the Government’s Industrial Strategy. Although the full details have yet to emerge, universities will benefit from both investment in innovation, technology and research and from a strengthened regional development agenda. In addition, there are proposals for new Institutions of technology that will deliver vocational focused qualifications in STEM subjects. What the relationship will be between such institutions and their local universities and colleges remains to be seen – given the developments in the further education sector (see below), partnerships between institutions of technology and universities cannot be ruled out.

The Government announced a number of amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill. These may appease some of the Bill’s critics, particularly in the House of Lords, and subsequently ease its passage through Parliament. The Bill has not been watered down completely however – there remain some potential disruptors to the sector and Jo Johnson’s desire to see new entrants to the market remains strong. There is a strong push towards the provision of accelerated degrees. It will be interesting to see if those institutions that are currently suffering falling student numbers take the opportunity to develop accelerated degree programmes or whether alternative providers will see a gap in the market to develop new offerings.

There is reference to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) within the Bill with the amendments deferring implementation of a subject level TEF to 2019/20. The TEF will continue to evolve – the suggestion is that this year will be one to see the effect and impact with any lessons learned giving rise to change in subsequent years. Any changes may have to take into account the sector’s response to the new measure. The TEF can apply to any higher education provider, be it a traditional institution, a further education college providing HE, or an alternative provider. There appears to be some dissention in the ranks – WonkHE has identified six institutions, including two alternative providers, that opted out of the first stage and reported that thirty three institutions have opted out of TEF2 in spite of being eligible. Is this an indicator that an exercise that was initially badged as being light touch has now become sufficiently burdensome that the burden outweighs the value to the institution?

Finally, the reports on the further education area reviews in England have been being published since November. The reviews invited colleges, employers and other local representatives to review provision and make recommendations to “ensure employers and young people get the skills and training they need to help their local area thrive”. Most recommendations centre on mergers, consolidations and strategic collaborations. Whilst many of the proposed mergers have been between further education colleges in a given area, there have been a number of collaborations proposed between further and higher education institutions and at least one merger between an FE college and university. The proposals in England are similar to recent changes made to the further education sector in both Scotland and Wales – with both higher and further education now under the same Government department, could this be the precursor to closer collaboration and an integrated skills and higher education policy?

Sources:
Times Higher: UK’s ‘lower ranked’ universities take non-EU student hit (23 February)
WonkHE: Path clears for HE Bill as Government announces major changes (24 February)
WonkHE: TEF1, TEF2 and a complex game of snakes and ladders (20 February)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *