Degrees of uncertainty

1 Jun 12
Sir David Bell

The new academic year will open up a more hard-edged and competitive higher education market. There will be both winners and losers

For students, the beginning of a new university year is usually characterised by a mixture of excitement and trepidation. This autumn, vice-chancellors in England could be forgiven for sharing similar feelings as a new era in higher education begins.

After one of the most acrimonious political debates in recent memory, the first undergraduates paying up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees will arrive on campus. Almost inevitably, there will be pressure on universities to be clearer about they offer as students and, in some cases, their parents become more demanding.

In a positive development, the Key Information Sets, which all universities have to publish from September, will provide data on areas such as courses, student satisfaction, accommodation costs and the students’ union. This will allow prospective students to make meaningful comparisons between universities. All of this will supplement the considerable amount of ‘chatter’ that already exists on social media sites.

But the conversation is not all one-way. Universities need, in turn, to have greater expectations of students as higher education is not merely an extension of school, but a significant step-up in academic terms. Developing a culture of independent learning and acquiring higher-level research skills are as important as sitting passively in a lecture acquiring new knowledge. In this respect, universities need to work more closely with schools to ensure students are well prepared for a qualitatively different experience.

A greater degree of volatility is now a feature of the system. In 2012/13, universities are free to recruit unlimited numbers of students holding AAB grades or higher at A-level. From 2013/14 onwards, that freedom will be extended to ABB grades.

Universities charging under £7,500 will have access to 20,000 ‘additional’ places that are being taken off the sector as a whole. In 2013/14, another 5,000 places will be added.

The government has designed these changes to maximise choice and diversity, allowing some universities to expand to meet demand and others to become more competitive in price to attract new recruits into higher education. In turn, this is likely to heighten the pressure on less popular universities that are unable, in the short term at least, to drop their price to attract a different market in students.

So what are the prospects? The Higher Education Funding Council for England recently reported that the sector was generally in good financial health and well-prepared for the changes. That suggests that few, if any, universities are at immediate risk.

But not everyone is going to be a winner. Successive years of poor recruitment and declining popularity are surely inevitable for some. By the middle of the decade, we might see rescues, takeovers and even closures. And will some unfortunate secretary of state have the unenviable task of signing the first ‘death warrant’ for a university?

As if this was not enough to contend with, universities are preparing for the next national review of research quality, the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, which translates into institutional research funding levels. That too is likely to be good news for some and tougher for others.

The doomsayers have been quick to point to the difficulties. Yet, one of the strongest features of the British education system is the independence of our universities and their scope to shape their own destiny. There is nothing to suggest it will be any different in the future.

Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor of Reading University and a former teacher, Ofsted head and senior civil servant

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