Press release

UK universities facing unprecedented challenges and leaders call for fundamental reforms

12 October 2023

An overwhelming 90% of vice-chancellors believe the UK university sector has never faced greater threats or uncertainties, according to the latest research from PA Consulting, the consultancy that’s bringing ingenuity to life.

The 12th annual survey uncovered that universities are responding with a measured approach focusing on five key areas. However, whilst many of these measures have enabled universities to weather previous crises, they are perceived by vice-chancellors to be far less effective in the current environment. 80% agree the university system now needs to embrace fundamental reforms in order to survive.

Key findings include:

  • Unprecedented challenges. 90% say the UK university sector has never faced greater threats or uncertainties, due to a variety of inter-related economic, market, and policy factors. Challenges include criticisms of the cost and quality of educational provision, poor postgraduation outcomes for students, and unsustainable financial deficits.
  • A measured response. Universities are currently taking an adaptive, measured response to these challenges, focusing on five key areas:
    1. Student growth: 77% plan to grow home student enrolments over the next three to five years and 87% plan to increase international student enrolments.
    2. Reforming portfolios and delivery: The majority (79%) of respondents place reshaping taught portfolios among their highest strategic priorities.
    3. Growing research, innovation and knowledge exchange: Over half (51%) plan to grow research activities by up to 20%, although 79% say the gaps between funding and costs for research are a prominent concern.
    4. Prioritising digital transformation: Over 90% ranked enhancing student and staff experiences as their top or near-top priority for operational improvements, which includes investing heavily in digital transformation.
    5. Reframing boundaries and presence: Almost all universities are reframing their external relationships across wider learning services and knowledge exchanges, with a focus on place-related strategies.
  • Need for system-wide reforms. Despite these steps, 80% agree the university system needs to embrace fundamental reforms to survive. Vice-chancellors believe that the system is rooted in 20th century models of higher education – selective, institution-centred, and loosely regulated – which needs to adapt to today’s world.
  • Shared ambition and resources. Many agree that hardwired competition for students and research funds has hindered attempts at cooperation across the system. Reducing unnecessary competition and shifting the focus to economic and social outcomes would encourage greater collaboration, innovation and openness.
Universities have shown their resilience through incremental adaptation during past crises. However, PA’s latest survey reveals that these measures are no longer enough. Fundamental reform and a new change mindset is needed for institutions to successfully navigate the current challenges. The foundations for these reforms are being laid, and we expect to see place-related partnerships, tertiary level integration, the use of AI and digital, and shared ambition and resources to increase in the coming years.”
PA Head of higher education
Vice-chancellors recognise that the onus is on institutions – individually and collectively – to take the lead in developing and delivering new models and approaches. As our latest survey shows, a re-oriented university system is gradually emerging, and new cross-system relationships will be necessary for universities to meet the needs of today’s mass participatory, socially accountable, multi-provider, digital world.”
PA higher education expert

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