Political games at the HE Summit

I spent the first two days this week at the Higher Education summit in London. The conference brought together a wide range of delegates including vice-chancellors, other members of university executives and politicians.

The highlights of the first day were the presentations from Rick Trainor, Principal of Kings College and President of Universities UK, and David Lammy, now Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property. Rick Trainor opened by highlighting a study by UUK into the changing demographics in the UK. The number of 18 year olds will decline by 6% overall over the next ten years and, although the overall trend is for an increase thereafter this is purely because of an increase in England; numbers in Scotland and Wales will continue to fall. Although some of the decrease may be offset by increased immigration there are no reliable immigration statistics to use to predict the effect.

The changing demographics will affect institutions differently and consequently the sector will need to look at new markets such as increasing the number of mature and part-time students, CPD and increased partnerships with FE and Schools. Universities need to be proactive and flexible but need the support of policy makers in order to deliver. He warned against cutting student numbers and cutting the level of student funding, citing the cost of delivering an improved student experience.

Trainor encouraged increased support of technology based learning but noted that the investment had not been strong in recent years and that dissemination is poor. This is clearly an area where UCISA together with its sister organisations can assist. There is a need to offer virtual programmes world wide and move into the global market. UUK will be carrying out a study to analyse the potential competition.

He noted a number of risks. Certainly there is the risk that the current market turbulence may result in greater intervention by the Government; this should be discouraged. There is also a risk to institutions where policy decisions may have an unintended consequence for the sector (in the IT sector, the possible legislation to address illicit peer to peer filesharing has the potential for such an unintended impact). There will be pressure on the home market which will lead to greater emphasis on the international market. Consequently the impact of the points based immigration system should be scrutinised to ensure it does not detract from institutions’ recruitment operations.

He concluded by noting the impact of the divergent policies on HE within the UK. These have resulted in disparate levels of funding and resourcing in the four home nations. There is a need for an integrated policy across the UK – the review of higher education instigated by John Denham needs to avoid focussing on England and focus on the whole of the UK.

David Lammy noted that there were already some trends emerging as a result of the discussion on the Denham review. Universities need to have a role in the key areas of life engaging both with local economies as well as with national and global aspects. They need to focus on diversity and be increasingly flexible. He stressed the need for university management to deliver on strategies and manage their institutions well – what he didn’t say was whether the Government would resist the temptation to intervene in the sector. The fees review will follow the conclusion of the review of the sector overall. Although it is likely that it will start in 2009 it will not conclude this year and probably not before the next election. So I would assess that there will not be any lifting of the fee cap until some time into the next decade (2013 was suggested).

He highlighted the achievements of the widening participation agenda, particularly the rise in acceptance of university places from the lower socio-economic groups. He also praised the work of the Aim Higher programme and the work of institutions to encourage participation. He saw the building of strong relationships and partnerships across the education sector as the key to continuing to improve access; those in schools that encourage progression are most likely to do best. However fairer access to universities needs to be matched by fairer access to the graduate professions.

Lammy largely focussed on the area of widening participation. Whilst it is a key plank in the Government strategy it was disappointing that he chose not to respond to the points Rick Trainor raised in his address. He is, however, still relatively new to the job – a similar exchange next year may be a better time to judge him.

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