Skip to content

Protected past, precarious future?

Our tenth survey of heads of UK higher education institutions

Download the report


Over the years, we’ve surveyed vice-chancellors nine times, seeing remarkable changes in higher education (HE). For our tenth survey, we invited university leaders to reflect on this evolution and look forward to the next decade. The result is a fascinating picture of a sector on a transformational journey, with universities taking different routes towards unknown destinations.

This year’s report outlines vice-chancellors’ strategic priorities, the changes they’ve made and their views on the future of the sector.

About the survey

Our survey invited 160 vice-chancellors to give their thoughts on the huge policy and market changes seen in UK higher education over the past decade. We also asked what university leaders expect to change in the next 10 years. 

What we found

Vice-chancellors predict challenging times for UK universities as they face up to multiple political and economic uncertainties. While fewer than nine per cent think outright institutional closures are highly likely, 60 per cent expect a wave of cut-backs, partial closures, mergers and takeovers. Overall, we found:

Winners and losers

Policy and market shifts have had very different impacts across the sector.

While up to half of universities say they have benefited from changes in funding and student number controls, a similar proportion have found these changes damaging to their strategic ambitions.

The decline in demand for part-time and adult study has been particularly damaging to institutions.

Damaged relationships

Vice-chancellors lament the effects of marketisation on relationships.

Undue emphasis on the economics of higher education has altered the relationships between universities and students, staff, policy-makers and businesses. They have changed from co-operation around shared interests to business transactions focused on short-term outcomes.

This has generated negative public perceptions of the value of higher education and poor morale.

Outmoded operations

Universities are slow to innovate in response to new demands and opportunities.

Vice-chancellors recognise there are opportunities to modernise services and ways of working through technology, but many report slow progress in areas such as teaching methods.

This is due to skills shortages in IT and business relationship management.

Vice-chancellors told us that a continuation of these trends would produce a higher education sector characterised by polarisation between winners and losers. They also expect further concentration of research funding to promote a small elite of prestigious institutions, making it harder for others to sustain viable research capabilities.

Find out more about our survey

Download the report

Related insights

Contact us

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

Ian Matthias

PA education expert

Find out more about our survey

Download the report