Higher education did not feature heavily in the 2019 general election campaign, with political attention inevitably focused on Brexit and the NHS.
The election result, however, will have significant implications for the higher education sector over the next year and beyond.
As ever, concerns over funding and the long-term financial sustainability of higher education institutions will dominate discussions within the sector. But beyond funding, higher education faces political pressures on a range of issues from grade inflation to Vice-Chancellor pay.
Below is a snapshot of the five biggest challenges facing the higher education sector in 2020:
Funding and fees
The Augar Review of post-18 education and funding, published in May 2019, recommended the government reduce tuition fees to £7,500 per year, with the government replacing any lost funding through increased grants to universities. The Conservatives’ general election victory means it is unlikely the government will cut tuition fees but there is some scope for funding shifts to support subjects deemed to be of most economic value.
Funding changes will emerge from the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) which determines the allocation of quality-related (QR) funding for research and will realign the funding settlements for research institutions.
Demonstrating the impact of research is worth 25 per cent of the 2021 REF, an increase from 20 per cent in the last iteration in 2014, and institutions will have to carefully consider how best to demonstrate the social and economic impact of their research beyond academia.
This will involve higher education institutions needing to prove their research has had a positive impact on the economy, government policy, public services, the environment or society, taking into account the priorities of the REF panel.
Despite Boris Johnson running on the promise that he would ‘get Brexit done’, the implications of Brexit still loom large for higher education.
Indications suggest the government will charge EU students full international fees for the academic year following 2021/22, which could impact on demand and create financial pressure on institutions that recruit heavily from the EU.
There also remains the question of the extent to which the government will replace the lost income of universities from EU research funding beyond the end of the transition period.
The past year has seen increased media and political attention paid to the number of Firsts and 2:1s awarded to students by UK universities, prompting fears grade inflation is undermining the value of British university degrees.
In response, the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment launched a new framework for the classification of degrees as part of a new voluntary code towards the end of 2019.
The extent to which the new code of practice is able to halt the number of top degree awards will determine whether the government seeks to introduce further regulatory oversight of the classification of degrees. How the government decides to deal with grade inflation will indicate the extent to which it is comfortable with the marketisation of the higher education sector.
As a potential consequence of institutions needing to attract students, the government may be forced to correct market incentives through increased regulation.
Gavin Williamson has publicly stated universities must take steps to ensure free speech on campus or the government will legislate to protect freedom of expression. Writing in The Times last week, the Education Secretary warned higher education institutions that intimidation of academics by students and other protesters is unacceptable and they must do more to protect the safety of academics and their right to free speech. Williamson has pledged to change the legal framework to strengthen free speech rights if universities do not take sufficient action.
The intervention by the Education Secretary will be a challenge for universities as they try to balance the right of students to protest against the need for academic freedom and expression. The government’s demand for free expression on campus will be particularly tested when it comes to topics like transgender rights and the politics of the far-right.
Media and political scrutiny of Vice-Chancellor remuneration has continued into 2020, following recent analysis that nearly half of Russell Group universities have increased Vice-Chancellor pay over the past year. A lot of the pay increases awarded to university bosses have been above inflation, with the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool receiving a 12.8 per cent increase, increasing her annual pay to £410,000.
Some universities, such as the University of Southampton, have cut pay when appointing new Vice-Chancellors, and the Russell Group has stated pay awards are down by nearly two per cent across the group.
Faced with hostility from unions and students, higher education institutions will need to work hard to justify their pay awards to Vice-Chancellors to avoid further straining their relationships with ordinary staff and students.