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Forecasts of storms




This report is based on the ninth of PA’s annual surveys of heads of UK universities. It presents the views of vice-chancellors on the dramatic developments affecting higher education during 2017, and on the outlook for the sector and their own institutions over the coming years.

Our survey, taken towards the end of an eventful year for UK higher education, found institution heads feeling distinctly beleaguered and uncertain of the outlook for the next few years. The bullishness reported in past reports, has been replaced with a safety-first focus on core strengths and financial prudence.


We surveyed 163 vice-chancellors and other institution heads and received 49 responses, representing a 30% response rate.

Questions covered respondents’ views on the negative public and political sentiment towards universities seen during 2017, the funding and regulation of HE providers’ strategic priorities for coming years, and the outlook for the wider sector.


Almost all university heads foresee challenging times ahead for the HE sector, predicting that some institutions will face major difficulties.

  • A particular concern is the prospect of real-terms cuts and new conditions on student tuition fees
  • While few expect to see outright failures of universities, over 80% foresee significant shrinking of provision across the sector
  • In response, almost all institutions plan to focus their strategies on financial security and concentrating on their core business strengths, with many looking to share risks and costs through extended academic and business partnerships
  • Despite their caution, vice-chancellors see prospects for growth in emerging areas, notably in work-based learning and apprenticeships and local growth and innovation projects
  • University leaders feel under attack from political and media commentators and recognise the need to become more assertive in making the case for the value universities provide

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  • “We have gone from being national treasures to problems to be made to go away”
  • “The sector is at a pivot point: the strong are getting stronger while the very weak are under considerable threat. There could be carnage”
  • “When the sea was calm al ships alike showed mastery in floating” (Comment on the relative protections enjoyed by universities in past years)
  • “Most institutions are focused on just getting through the next few years”
  • [Government policies] “seem driven more by a desire to break the system than just market reform

Related insights

Contact us

To find out more about our work in higher education, get in touch with one of our authors today.

Mike Boxall

PA education expert

Paul Woodgates

PA education expert

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