Tag Archives: government

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this compounds the effect of competition for undergraduate places that resulted when the cap on student numbers was withdrawn.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)

A rocky road ahead…

    “Times of unprecedented change”

    “Challenging economic climate”

Looking back at a number of the reviews of the political landscape that I’ve written over the years, the two phrases above appear with almost monotonous regularity. And they are just as appropriate today as they have been in previous years. However, what is new is that before both the direction of change and the reasons for the economic challenges were known. The big difference today is that result of the referendum on 23 June has thrown uncertainty into the mix. Uncertainty, not just in the higher education sector, but across the whole country as the process to leave the EU begins.

The Government have sought to reduce some of the uncertainty by guaranteeing that EU students that are currently studying in the UK and those that will begin their courses in the coming years will continue to receive funding for the duration of their courses. Similar guarantees have been made for Horizon 2020 research funding. However, what is not clear is what the impact of Brexit will be on the future recruitment of students from the EU or on research funding. It is unlikely to be good news.

The current analysis is that the Government appears to be favouring a hard Brexit with tighter controls on immigration. The dominance of immigration as an issue in the referendum campaign and subsequent policy has been reflected in the statements from the Home Office suggesting further clampdowns on international students. Regardless of the actual policy that emerges, the rhetoric is damaging – a fall of 10% in the numbers of Indian students is evidence of that. It was not by accident that the Indian Prime Minister linked trade agreements with relaxation of visa requirements but although Theresa May stated that talented workers would be welcome, her response regarding students was lukewarm at best. It would appear that the lady is not for turning.

This is all set against the rather gloomy background of HEFCE’s assessment of the financial health of English universities released this week. The picture is likely to be similar in universities in the other countries of the UK. The forecast, made before the referendum, suggests falling levels of surpluses (and in some cases significant deficits), more borrowing and falling levels of cash reserves. The report notes that universities were looking for an increase of fee income from overseas students (of close to 30%), and for growth in home and EU students of over ten per cent by the 2018/19 session. In the current circumstances it is unlikely that either will materialise; a period of budgetary constraint will be the consequence. This will place an even greater emphasis on efficiencies and effective use of data in planning.

The Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) is entering the Report stage before its third reading in the House of Commons. The Bill has seen a number of amendments as it has passed through the Committee stage but these have not radically changed the direction of the Bill. The Bill advocates the abolition of the English Funding Council (HEFCE) and the establishment of the Office for Students (OfS). The importance of the role HEFCE play in monitoring the financial health of the sector has been recognised in an amendment that proposes this role transfers to the OfS.

There is a great deal of focus on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), particularly the link to fee increases. Although the TEF will initially apply to English universities, similar measures in the past have been adopted by the other countries in the UK so it would not be a surprise if in future years the TEF becomes applicable to all UK institutions.

The governance arrangements for higher education are also changing. In addition to HEFCE’s transformation into the Office for Students (and universities moving under the Department for Education), there are reports of the Welsh funding council being absorbed into a new Tertiary Education Authority and of the Scottish Funding Council being merged into a ‘super-quango’ with a number of other bodies. Both add to the uncertainty in the sector.

Finally one change that we do know about is that the UK will be implementing the EU General Data Protection Regulation before we leave the EU. Although much of the focus has been on the scale of the fines for breaches, GDPR represents an opportunity for organisations to improve their data and its management. UCISA has set up a website to highlight resources and activities that inform and support our members in their implementation of the Regulation.

There are difficult and challenging times ahead. Universities will need to make good use of the data they have to try and predict the effect of changes and plan accordingly. They will need be more agile to deal with the changes that are known as well as those that are yet to emerge. The sector has been resilient at times of uncertainty in the past and many will see opportunities to reshape their offering and operating model to adapt to the new environment. IT will be at the hub of that change.