Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Scotland and Brexit

September 7, 2016

I attended a seminar yesterday considering the impact of the Referendum result in Scotland. As UCISA is a UK wide organisation it is important to understand the range of views across the UK and the potential impacts on the devolved nations. In Scotland, along with Northern Ireland, the majority cast their votes in favour of remaining in the EU. Nicola Sturgeon has made the Scottish Government view clear – they wish the majority view in Scotland to be respected and for Scotland to remain in the EU. To what extent that can be achieved isn’t clear, partly because the new cabinet at Westminster is still defining its approach to leaving the EU.

The lack of clarity stems from before the referendum. There was no White Paper to outline the proposed action in the event of a vote to leave – this contrasts with the approach taken with the Scottish independence referendum where options for both outcomes were known. Further it has become evident that there were no plans or contingencies for a leave success. It isn’t clear how the exit will be triggered or who needs to be consulted – and this might not be clear until a number of legal challenges have been addressed later in the year. Finally, the notion of leaving the EU means different things to different people – there remains a great deal of negotiation between constituents within Government for a clear picture to emerge.

What are the options for Scotland? Given that there appears to be reluctance to hold a further referendum on independence, it will probably be limited to trying to influence a move to a least worst option. David Davies, in his address to Parliament on 5 September, stated that the devolved administrations would have an important role to play (but that they would have no veto). So Scotland will need to lobby hard for a softer Brexit with continued access to free trade against the hard line Brexiteers within the UK Government. An alternative might be for Scotland to build stronger relationships with the EU post exit in certain areas such as agriculture or higher education. However, this may require a further Scotland Act to devolve more powers to Holyrood in order to be achievable. A further option could be for Scotland and Northern Ireland, as the two nations within the UK that voted to remain, to take over the UK’s EU membership but the constitutional challenges that would present within the UK makes that extremely unlikely.

The result of the Referendum on June 23 will have an immediate impact even before negotiations begin. The demands placed on the Civil Service to inform the negotiations and manage the process will cost, both financially and in terms of time spent away from business as usual. So it may be prudent for those organisations that receive direct or indirect Government funding to budget for a reduction in income. Further, it may mean that some issues that might have occupied parliamentary time will be pushed further down the queue.

So what will be the impact on higher and further education in Scotland? Whilst education remains a priority for Holyrood, it is way down the list in the Westminster Government’s Brexit considerations and it will be some time before the full impact is understood. The risk to research through the loss of EU funding and collaboration opportunities is well documented. In the short term, there is the risk of further reduction in central funding and a risk to student numbers. Brexit has given added impetus to the Home Office perspective on international students and the potential damage to applications from beyond the EU. EU student numbers may also decline amidst the uncertainty.

UK universities and their representative bodies will need to be effective in lobbying and influencing Government over the coming months and years. In the short term this will be needed to remove uncertainty (for example, reassuring EU students applying now for 2017 that their fees won’t rise during their course); longer term it will be needed to ensure the continued global success of the sector. What is clear is that the uncertainty means that universities will need to plan for a range of potential scenarios – the need for quality data and systems to support this has never been greater.

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The future of Higher Education

March 28, 2011

I attended the Guardian Future of Higher Education symposium earlier this month and heard a number of varied and interesting presentations including two from Government ministers in David Willetts and Simon Hughes.

There were a number of key points that arose during the course of the day.

  • There is an expectation that most institutions will seek to charge the maximum fee for their courses (and this is being borne out in the numerous announcements in the last fortnight). Aaron Porter, President on the NUS, noted that failure to charge £9000 for a course would almost suggest that it was of a lesser standard. This will bring some challenges to the Government who have based their calculations on an average fee of £7500 but David Willetts noted that the key factor was the cost to the Treasury, not the fee (notionally) charged. So if all institutions provide subsidies or fee waivers that reduce the average to £7500, then there is less likely to be an impact. If this is not the case then BIS will have to find savings. A number of options are under consideration including reducing student numbers and reducing the teaching grant further. The picture will be clearer once all institutions have declared their position and the White Paper (scheduled now for June or July) has been published. Simon Hughes delivered an impassioned plea for institutions to consider lower fees (and it has to be said that he has always been an opponent of higher fees) but the evidence is that few will respond to his call.
  • Early engagement with potential applicants was a recurring theme, particularly when widening participation was discussed. It was recognised that the choices school children make at 14 and 16 can have a decisive effect on making them credible candidates for leading universities so there is a need for universities to engage at a much earlier stage to provide guidance. There was much mention of a careers for life service which I understand was one of the victims of the cuts so there may be a void that universities need to fill. The value of early engagement is perhaps illustrated by an example from Europe. The Italian system had a high drop out level and they sought to rectify that by engaging with applicants and identifying the courses that were most suitable for them. The drop out rate is falling as a result.
  • Further evidence for the need for engagement was highlighted in the session on marketing courses. Both Peter Slee and Tricia King identified that a key factor in a student choosing to go to university was the opportunity to sample university life through visits and open days. King observed that engagement with applicants is an important part of retention as you are introducing the experience and managing expectations (although as one delegate pointed out, it is important to ensure that support is available throughout a student’s time at university). For all the Government’s talk about providing better information through the key information sets, the consensus was that decisions are largely made with the heart, not the head so although the KIS might provide assurance for parents, the open day or visit is more likely to be influential on the students themselves.
  • It was also recognised that there needs to be greater engagement with employers. A number of leading accountancy companies have established relationships with some institutions and will, for certain courses, pay individuals students’ fees for the duration, pay them a salary whilst they are studying and give them a job on graduation. This is perhaps evidence that the sector does provide good value for money when compared with the cost of training graduates. This will clearly be an attractive option to applicants when fees increase but not all industries are in a position to offer such incentives. Graduates in STEM subjects are unlikely to command large salaries and the high salaries available in the financial sector are leading to a drain of STEM graduates from their preferred discipline. It was recognition that the Government needs to look at ways of providing incentives for graduates to stay in STEM disciplines.
  • Finally the conference looked at the alternatives for delivering higher education. It was recognised that the Further Education sector has a role to play and the success of the 2 + 2 scheme in Scotland (where the FE college delivers the first two years of the course before students move to a HEI to complete) was cited as a good example of an effective partnership between the two sectors. It was recognised that FE Colleges have stronger links to their local community and to industry than their HE counterparts. Commercial providers have also go strong links with commerce and shape their programmes to meet companies’ needs. They have had to be lean in order to survive and live with challenges of variable student numbers and income.

Overall the event was rather more upbeat than I had been expecting. The consensus was that the sector was well placed to see through the turbulence over the next couple of years and couple look forward with a reasonable amount of optimism. That said, there is no space for complacency. It was clear that there is a need for the sector to be more efficient and also the need for greater investment in engagement with both potential applicants and employers. IT can clearly play a role in these areas but I suspect the bigger challenge will be the change in culture required.

Political games at the HE Summit

February 5, 2009

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.