Another Avalanche is Coming

After the apocalyptic prophecies of the recent IPPR report, where MOOCs were going to sweep away everything in their path, Steve Smith, formerly of Universities UK and now VC of Exeter writes in this week’s Higher about what the other  and possibly more pressing challenges are which threaten UK higher education.

He does provide a bit of criticism of the IPPR report – there’s much on it that could be criticised  but at least it provoked significant debate – and then describes what he feels are the main threats.

  • austerity
  • the student finance system
  • research
  • admissions
  • visas

Under austerity:

“The IFS estimates that there will be a further cut of about 2.8 per cent to unprotected departmental expenditure limits in the 2013 spending review, which is expected in June and will cover 2015-16. Many estimate that this will lead to a 6-8 per cent cut in the BIS budget.

But the IFS notes that the real problem will arise after this, when whoever is in government will have to reduce departmental spending by 12.7 per cent by 2017-18, which means that the likely cuts for BIS will be considerable. By 2017-18, those cuts could total 43 per cent.”

The student finance system:

“an avalanche really is coming in terms of the costs of student support.

I cannot see that system surviving, and expect any incoming government in 2015 to look again at the student finance system and to try to reduce its costs. Think for a moment about how it might do that, and how that might influence student demand for different types of institutions. To mention just one controversial way to reduce costs, what would be the effect of re-examining the Browne review’s notion of requiring minimum qualifications before students gain access to the loan system?”


“Another area facing avalanche-like upheaval is research selectivity. Even a cash ring-fenced science and research budget entails no adjustment for inflation for eight years.

That looks to me like a real-terms reduction of about 20 per cent in research funding by 2017-18. The only options for dealing with that are to reduce all funding by the same amount in real terms, or further increase research selectivity.

I suspect that the latter is the only way to balance this financial constraint with the need to compete internationally. One obvious indication of this thinking is the near universal move by the research councils to concentrate funding for PhD training into a small number of doctoral training centres.”


“the end-of-cycle report published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in January showed that a growing proportion of the higher-performing students are applying to a smaller subset of universities. There also seems to be a trend towards increased competition for the highest-performing students”

And visas:

“I remain worried about the inability of all of us to win the political battle to get student numbers removed from the net migration figures…..But if we do not win this battle, and more importantly soil the perception of UK higher education overseas (especially in India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), then we could see significant reductions in international recruitment. I think that as a sector we win all the economic arguments, but it seems that the politics of immigration trumps that.”


And for us? All of these are worrying, and considerably more of a threat than the emergence of one form of online learning. There will be less and less money available for the sector, and although we rely in student income increasingly, further changes to the student finance system could reduce the numbers wanting to attend full time courses. Research is not a huge income earner for us, but crucial for our academic reputation, to support learning and teaching at a leading edge, and to build relationships, business opportunities and change for our commercial partners.

Further polarisation of student admissions will not benefit us and as David Willets said earlier today at the HEFCE annual meeting, “We want greater freedoms and flexibilities for all institutions, not just those with high-tariff students. 2014-15 will be a step towards that. Where student demand is low and institutions significantly under-recruit then unfilled places will be moved to those with stronger recruitment patterns.” This has to be a worry for many universities in the newer part of the sector. Finally  I know that we are well aware of the importance of portraying the UK HE sector as being one which is open for business to students from India, China etc – the tension between the Home Office and BIS does nothing to help us.