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UK HE in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world where ‘nothing makes sense’

This article first appeared in Times Higher Education

UK vice-chancellors are lamenting a “lost golden age” of stability, as Brexit and restrictions on overseas students combines with the prospect of losing out to for-profit providers to leave them in an “Alice in Wonderland” scenario where “nothing seems to make sense”.

Those are among the colourful quotes from the 45 UK vice-chancellors who responded to PA Consulting’s annual higher education survey.

“Over 70 per cent of respondents felt that the effects of Brexit and of visa restrictions on students and staff will have seriously adverse effects on the HE sector, although a markedly smaller proportion expressed similar fears for the impacts on their own institutions,” says the survey report, written by Mike Boxall and Paul Woodgates of PA Consulting.

“Student recruitment from the EU is predicted to fall by 81 per cent or more of vice-chancellors following Brexit, although, somewhat paradoxically, over 50 per cent of respondents remain confident of increasing other international recruitment, mainly by growing enrolments outside the UK and online,” it also says.

The authors write of “an unprecedented barrage of game-changing policy developments”.

They add: “The concurrent impacts of the Brexit vote, the radical provisions of the Higher Education and Research Bill, the teaching excellence framework, redoubled restrictions on student visas and the restructuring of research funding (among other reforms) present HE leaders with a plethora of new challenges.”

The report includes comments from vice-chancellors, provided on an anonymised basis. “We are in a situation of multiple unknowns. It is like Alice in Wonderland – nothing seems to make sense,” one said.

HE report 2016 225 x 317 px

New rules - different games: University leaders' views on the unsettled outlook for higher education


“Being forced to focus on UK students and research funding, rather than being globally oriented, risks significant deterioration in our global position,” said another vice-chancellor of the picture on overseas students.

“We have lost a golden age that we did not realise we had,” another said.

Mr Boxall said the survey showed that vice-chancellors were “disconcerted about the accumulation and direction of changes in the policy and competitive landscape for the overall viability, sustainability and competitiveness of the sector as a whole”.

He also said vice-chancellors’ international fears were not just related to student numbers but also to “the international standing of UK higher education, engagement with international research, inward and outward [mobility] of world-class faculty”.

The UK government’s Higher Education and Research Bill aims to bring more private providers into the sector. The report says: “Respondents were nervous about the potential loss of business to new or alternative providers – 44 per cent predicted that such providers could take up to 10 per cent of the teaching market, and 42 per cent predicted them taking between 10 per cent-25 per cent market share”.

Mr Woodgates said: “Although I think the alternative providers will take, in volume terms, a relatively small chunk of the overall market, the concern that’s come through in the survey is that they will cherry-pick. They will take the bits that make surpluses that are used to reinvest in the other good things that universities do, whether that’s research or their social mission.”

He also said: “The sector is still expressing resilience and vice-chancellors largely believe their institution will weather the storm and do well. The question is, in a world of winners and losers [following the abolition of caps on the number of domestic students they can recruit], whether they can all be right.”

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