The current environment

I write a briefing for exhibitors at the two biggest UCISA events – UCISA16 is taking place next week so here’s my take on the current political factors affecting the sector…

The run up to the General Election in 2015 saw very little in the form of legislation and little change in the sector. The year since has been far busier with the publication of the Green Paper Teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice, the introduction of the Counter Terrorism duty on higher and further education institutions (the PREVENT duty), the drafting of the Investigatory Powers Bill and consultations on the information provided to students and the HESA Data Futures programme. The proposals within the Green Paper require refinement – it is not clear what the impact will be on institutions and it is anticipated that there will be further consultation during 2016. Although the Paper only applies to higher education in England, it is probable that a number of the measures proposed will also be introduced in time in the other countries of the UK.

The publication of the Green Paper in November demonstrated that the Westminster Government is looking to shape the English Higher Education sector rather more than it has in the past with emphasis on teaching excellence, better information for students and widening participation. The Green Paper contained little detail and it is not clear how soon detailed proposals will be presented. The BIS Select Committee, whilst welcoming the approach in principle in its recent report, urged caution over the pace of implementation, noting that the second stage of the Teaching Excellence Framework “should only be introduced once Government can demonstrate that the metrics to be used have the confidence of students and universities”. The Green Paper also noted that universities needed to be more accountable for how student fees are spent. This reflects a theme first visited in a Private Members Bill tabled by Heidi Allen, Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire so it is perhaps not surprising to see elements of her proposals feature in the Green Paper.

Despite the emphasis on a light touch approach, it is evident that universities and colleges will need to make effective use of data in order to meet the anticipated requirements of the Green Paper. There are a number of other developments that will place similar demands on our institutions. The HESA Data Futures programme is seeking to redesign and transform the collection of student related data. The programme is in its early stages with a recent procurement to appoint an organisation to design and deliver the future business process, technology and application architecture. UCISA will continue to ensure that suppliers of student records systems are engaged with this initiative. Further, the Higher Education Commission’s report From Bricks to Clicks notes that data analytics has the potential to transform the higher education sector, but cautions that UK institutions are currently not making the most of the opportunities in this area.

There continues to be funding pressure on all UK higher education institutions. In Northern Ireland funding has reduced by 28% in real terms since 2010/11 leading to downsizing by the universities in the province. In Wales, a cross-party review of higher education funding and student finance arrangements is due to report in the autumn. Although funding cuts proposed by the Welsh Government have been rescinded, it is likely that there will be some rationalisation within the sector over the coming year. The Scottish Funding Council has also cut the level of funding with some institutions noting that continued cuts put “pressure on institutional viability”. In England, the introduction of competition has resulted in some big winners and losers – those institutions which have seen a fall in student numbers are now having to cut their cloth accordingly. In the Further Education sector, the outcome of the Area Reviews is expected to be mergers between further education colleges.

There may be a lull in the development of policy as elections for new administrations in Scotland and Wales take place in May followed by the referendum on the UK’s EU membership in June. It remains to be seen if changes in the constituency of those Governments are reflected in changes in education policy. It goes without saying that a vote to leave the EU will also have a significant impact on universities and governmental policies. 2016 promises to be an interesting year.

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