UK universities are undergoing a “sea-change” in strategies to prioritise engagement and impact in their regions above “competitive standing against peer institutions”, driving a shift towards growing recruitment and earnings through direct links with “big local employers”, according to an annual survey of vice-chancellors.
PA Consulting’s 11th survey of UK university leaders, shared exclusively with Times Higher Education, is based on more than 40 responses, via questionnaires, written commentary and in-depth telephone interviews.
“Universities are increasingly differentiating themselves and building their identities in terms of their social and economic engagement and impacts in their local region”, in “a significant shift from previous findings”, write the survey report’s authors, PA Consulting higher education specialists Mike Boxall and Ian Matthias.
Seventy per cent of vice-chancellors who responded put “recruiting from under-represented and/or local student groups” as their first or second priority, with 45 per cent doing the same for “supporting local or sectoral economic and workforce needs”. Figuring much lower as first or second priorities were “expanding or consolidating international partnerships” (chosen by 23 per cent), “recruiting only the academically most able students” (15 per cent) and “leading in advanced and international research developments” (5 per cent).
Meanwhile, vice-chancellors saw the chief “major risks” as a reduction in tuition fee levels (chosen by 63 per cent), a decline in international student demand (35 per cent) and caps/constraints on student admissions (31 per cent).
Universities may have been nudged towards greater local and regional focus by the Conservative Westminster government’s emphasis on “levelling up” in the UK regions in the wake of the Brexit vote, combined with the influence of the UPP Foundation’s 2019 Civic University Commission report, which has led many universities to strike civic university agreements with key local partners.
Mr Boxall said the “striking” proportion of vice-chancellors emphasising “what we could term the ‘levelling-up’ agenda and social impact” included “a fair number of Russell Group universities genuinely committing to what you might call more purposeful, impact-based strategies”.
Linked to that, he said the survey showed an increasing number of universities moving “at least part of [their] focus from competing on the open Ucas recruitment markets to direct employment and recruitment links with big local employers, especially the NHS but also the police and big local industries – meeting very specific local recruitment needs”.
One vice-chancellor described that as giving their university “baked-in numbers” and certainty. That is a move to “protect their business” when “constraints on numbers and courses are a real worry for them”, Mr Boxall said.
Another vice-chancellor quoted in the report saw a synergy here between civic mission and financial viability: “Do the right things [for the community] and the money will flow.”
In terms of potential changes to the shape of the sector, 73 per cent of vice-chancellors said their institutions had no plans for mergers with other higher education providers – but 27 per cent said they were actively considering such moves.
Mr Matthias said: “In previous years there have always been forecasts of university closures, etc. The reality is we’ve not seen that. What we will find is greater alignment, a few mergers, but much greater differentiation in the sector.”
Whether in “mergers across HE but also integration with FE…we should expect to see some movement over the next couple of years” in terms of “sector shape”, he continued. “I feel the experience of universities going through Covid was that it untapped some potential to be agile, innovative and change quite quickly that they didn’t think was possible before.”