It’s been a year of change, some expected, some less so. But 2017 doesn’t seem likely to be any less interesting, and that’s just based on the things we can predict. There’s lots in the headlines, but beyond Brexit, President Trump and other headlines, what can we expect to be on the sector’s agenda?
As discussed above, it’s all change for sector agencies. But we may see some change on the mission group scene as well. There’s talk of a new mission group: The Wesley Group (named after the Wesley Hotel in Euston because of the unwritten rule that all mission groups must be named after hotels where vice chancellors stay when they visit London), which closely mirrors the membership of the now defunct 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities. They’ve been actively meeting already, but the question for them this year is whether they will go public and make the group a real lobbying force? Elsewhere, Manchester VC Dame Nancy Rothwell has been conducting a review into the circumstances around the Russell Group's Director General's private life being splashed all over the tabloid papers earlier this year. The outcomes are said to be unflattering and could result in a change made at the top. Million Plus is also currently recruiting for a new Chief Executive which could signal a fresh approach for that group as well and so the cumulative change on the mission group scene will no doubt be interesting for observers of sector politics.
The policy agenda is unlikely to slow down. Expect an amended (and probably improved) Higher Education & Research Bill to pass some time in the Spring. The government has indicated to Peers that they would like as few delays as possible, which means there is likely to be extensive scope for concessions and amendments in the coming weeks and months. After that's done and dusted, expect DfE to look for new measures to integrate universities with the rest of the education brief and to find more tertiary policy solutions. We had a glimpse of this with the recent universities-schools consultation, but work is said to be underway on other policies that bring the HE sector closer to other parts of the education system. In other parts of the UK, ‘tertiary solutions’ was code for abolishing/merging funding councils, but with HEFCE already departing, there’s no funding council left to merge. But there are lots of other measures that can happen in between. We can expect more LEO data in the spring breaking down graduate earnings by subject and institution. It will be a massive release that could have wide consequences for the debate about the value of certain types of courses and institutions.
The Home Office will release its consultation early in the year which will give options to further crack down on international student recruitment. From tougher compliance measures, to a brand new Home Office measure of university ‘quality’, none of the choices are likely to look very attractive, and so the long war with the government on this issue will heat up.
Could it finally be so long and farewell to the first tranche of the student loan book which the government has been trying to sell for a number of years? The Office for Budget Responsibility was sanguine in the Autumn Statement about the chances of an imminent sale given wider economic conditions, but it's still possible that sale could be made in the first part of next year which would give the government some extra cash, but substantially re-ignite debates about privatisation and protecting graduate repayment terms.
Credit accumulation and transfer has been around for a long time as a concept thanks in large part to the late great David Watson (missed more than ever this year). But it could be an idea who’s time has come as the government is expected to respond to its call for evidence on credit transfer and accelerated degrees from the White Paper, possibly this week. This could point to some further government-backed additions to the Bill in the Lords next year aimed at making a credit transfer system work, and although this has been long-resisted by the sector, could force the wheels to turn in the name of further empowering students in the marketplace.
We’ll be hearing a lot more about Industrial Strategy, with a government strategy document expected shortly. Universities sniff a moment, and there is going to doubtlessly be lots of ways to input HE to this agenda next year.
Further change in Welsh HE is expected following the work on implementing the Diamond recommendations on student finance. Kirsty Williams has promised a government response to the Hazelkorn Review recommendations to merge HEFCW into a Tertiary Education Authority overseeing higher and further education. This is expected in late January.
In Scotland, a review of student support chaired by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, will report in the Autumn. Meanwhile, Scottish universities will either fight back or come to terms with the government’s proposal to abolish the independent board of the Scottish Funding Council, which will be merged into a new enterprise ‘super-quango’.
The first results of the TEF will be out in May - the release date will loom large over many universities’ communications calendars. A small number of Russell Group universities are expected to be rated Bronze unless they chose to opt-out of the exercise altogether, and this will no doubt capture many of the headlines. By contrast, there will be some surprise Gold winners, and that category is likely to feature several Wesley Group (see above) members as well as representatives from other mission groups. All this is unlikely to truly overturn the decades-established hierarchies of UK higher education, but it could cause some market turbulence in the short-to-medium term is students use TEF (and how it is reported) as a way of making choices. Much may depend on the TEF assessment panel’s weighting given to provider statements, which will be submitted in January.