In the media

UK vice-chancellors fear sector has ‘never faced greater threats’

By John Morgan

Times Higher Education

12 October 2023


Ninety per cent of vice-chancellors feel UK universities have “never faced greater threats or uncertainties”, amid worsening relations with the Westminster government and the Office for Students in particular, but some envisage a more collaborative, region-focused future beyond markets and competition.

The findings come from the latest edition of PA Consulting’s annual survey of UK vice-chancellors, this year based on responses from 40 leaders, supplemented by 15 follow-up interviews, published on 12 October and shared exclusively with Times Higher Education.

“UK universities are facing unprecedented challenges on multiple fronts, beset by criticisms of the cost and quality of educational provision, poor post-graduation outcomes for students, culture wars on campuses, and unsustainable financial deficits,” says the survey report.

Ninety per cent of survey respondents agreed with the statement that “the UK university sector has never faced greater threats or uncertainties”.

In England, where the freeze in the tuition fee cap at £9,250 means a long-running real-terms cut in teaching funding, “40 per cent of respondents predict this [the freeze] could cause a decline in home student recruitment as degree provision becomes uneconomic”, says the report.

“The sector is in unprecedented times, and it is anybody’s guess how things will develop,” said one vice-chancellor quoted in the report. “There is no other sector where costs rise, and there is no potential to increase the unit of income.”

“While I have always been doubtful about the predicted financial collapse of universities in the UK, I do think that the outlook for quite a few institutions is grim,” said another.

Ian Matthias, higher education lead partner at PA Consulting, a co-author on the report, said the level of concern among leaders was “as high as it has been” over the 12 years of the company’s survey.

Alongside financial uncertainty, “crucially in this year’s report, so much of it [the concern] was focused on the fractious relationships with government and the regulators”, he added.

In England, “attitudes towards the relationship with the OfS [Office for Students] are negative, especially in the context of government ministers’ critical rhetoric”, says the report.

With home student recruitment now “loss-making”, with research funding not meeting full economic costs and with increasing barriers to international student recruitment arising from UK government rhetoric or policy, there was an increasing feeling among vice-chancellors that “the things that have got us through in the past are now starting to be counterproductive”, said Mike Boxall, senior adviser on higher education at PA Consulting and a co-author on the report.

When it comes to solutions, 80 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that “the university system needs to embrace fundamental reforms in order to survive”.

Interviewees often saw the turn towards the role of universities in their regional economies, including via civic university agreements with local authorities, local NHS trusts or further education colleges, “as the basis for more extensive city or regional higher and further education systems”.

Another solution envisaged by some lies in moves towards a more integrated tertiary system, as the Welsh government is encouraging via a new single regulator for post-16 education and university research. “Interviewees report that universities are building closer links with further education colleges, for example to franchise courses or co-ordinate pathways,” the report says.

“While untested, this new joined-up approach is a positive step towards integration, alignment, and improved learning pathways.”

Vice-chancellors are often seeking “much more open, collaborative, probably place-based systems”, said Mr Boxall. But they also reported that “the thing that gets in the way of that is competition”, he added. “There’s so much competition hard-wired into every element of [the system].”

According to the report, “Interviewees point to multiple examples of failed inter-provider collaborations and partnerships due to issues around institutional autonomy and market shares, and suggest shifting the focus of funding from activity and inputs to economic or social outcomes.”

Artificial intelligence is viewed by some leaders as another potential solution. “Over a third of respondents (35 per cent) think AI and global digital services will fundamentally change the higher education environment,” says the report.

Mr Matthias said: “It’s great hearing vice-chancellors talk about how they can use this technology to provide hyper-personalisation of [the student] experience and truly transform their business model. There’s still a long way to go when we compare ourselves to healthcare or financial services, but certainly vice-chancellors are picking up the baton on this.”

Overall, he continued, “there’s a feeling from vice-chancellors that no government is coming to their rescue, so they need to get on with it”, a spirit that left the report authors “feeling really optimistic about the future of the sector”.

This article was first published in Times Higher Education

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