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by Edward Jones 2nd February, 2018
3 min read

Higher Education in Flux

The Higher Education sector has been in constant flux for a number of years, from the tuition fees increase in 2012 to the Higher Education and Research Act, which was given Royal Assent last April. The rate of change shows no signs of slowing down and 2018 looks likely to bring yet more changes.

Theresa May’s recent ‘reshuffle’ saw continuity win out in many departments, but may have a lasting impact on the Higher Education sector. The departure of both the Secretary of State, Justine Greening MP, and the Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson MP, paves the way for May’s long-promised review into tuition fees.

In December, Jo Johnson’s replacement, Sam Gyimah MP, gave the clearest indication yet that the Department would be seeking to reform the current rate of tuition. The change in the debate on tuition fees has been marked, and any major changes could have significant impacts on the ‘market’ model now at work in Higher Education.

The pressure will be particularly acute if a cap on students is once again revisited. The removal of the cap, in 2015, and the linking of income to students has allowed the student population to swell. Lord Adonis, the Labour Minister who crafted the original fee system, has argued that a cap must be reintroduced to cap the costs currently being incurred by the Treasury. However, were a cap to be reintroduced, many universities would see a dramatic fall in their incomes.

Such a squeeze on potential income would be particularly unwelcome, given the continuing uncertainty that surrounds UK institutions’ ability to access research funding from the EU after Brexit. As negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU are set to begin, practitioners will be keen to ensure that a quick and decisive solution is reached.

Gyimah has recently announced that he will undertake a tour of the UK, visiting Higher Education institutions across the country. This will be an excellent opportunity for the Minister immerse himself in his new brief and see the workings of the industry first hand. Likewise, it will be vital for both Universities and students to set out their concerns, priorities, and expectations of the Government, the new Department for Education team during the Brexit negotiations.

Whilst another General Election seems immediately unlikely, the prospect of a Labour Government would pose an equally disruptive landscape for universities. The headline pledge that a Labour Government would scrap tuition fees, whilst providing little detail on how the funding would be replaced, has understandably caused confusion.

Further to this, the ongoing dialogue and formulation of Labours National Education Service, and how Higher Education would fit, adds to an already muddied picture. The National Education Service was first suggested as a policy by Jeremy Corbyn during a leadership hustings in 2015. However, the development of the policy has so far been limited. As the party now seeks to expand its thinking and produce a policy that “focuses on output and outcome” to “break out of cycles of low pay” the role of Higher Education, and its institutions, should be watched with interest.

Higher Education in the UK, and particularly England, is set for change rather than continuity over the coming years, no matter the colour of the Government. Whilst this poses undoubted challenges for all those in the sector it also offers an unprecedented opportunity. The chance to inform the debate, influence policy development and set the industry on a sure footing for the future.

See more articles by Edward Jones