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Chill wind in summertime

08 June 2018

The years of plenty for higher education look like coming to an end, warns John Howson

University of Gloucestershire

University of Gloucestershire, a member of the Cathedrals Group

University of Gloucestershire, a member of the Cathedrals Group

THE prevailing condition of uncertainty in the public sector is affecting higher education at least as much as any other area. There isn’t much money around; nor is there likely to be in the short or medium term.

Yet the prospect of an end to undergraduate tuition fees, and the resumption of government funding, is not just wishful thinking: it is under serious consideration in political circles — mostly, but not exclusively, on the Left.

In the event of a General Election, the abolition of tuition fees might well be a campaign issue for Labour — and a vote-winner.

The prospect of a return to direct government funding should alarm vice-chancellors of church universities more than most. The tuition-fee regime has worked well for universities in the Cathedral Group. The arts and humanities courses that predominate are much cheaper to provide than those in science and engineering; so, even where they have not charged the top rate of £9000, they have still made a healthy surplus to spend on infrastructure. Where demand for higher education exceeds supply, they have done well.

The years of plenty may, however, be coming to an end.

Several factors are working against them. The cohort of 18-year-old applicants will fall over the next few years. The UK’s departure from the EU will put at risk a large group of overseas students who are seeking places at British universities. If, as a consequence of Brexit, older universities were also to lose research funding from various European bodies, there would be a knock-on effect on church universities and similar institutions.

Leeds Trinity UniversityLeeds Trinity University

Universities have invested heavily in recent years, and this investment has to be paid for, mostly by ensuring that student numbers remain at economic levels. Popular universities can ensure that their targets for student numbers are reached by making lower offers, and make greater efforts to fill places during the annual post-results clearing scramble. Students diverted from Cathedral Group universities during the scramble are not easily replaced.

Furthermore, the church universities are heavily involved in education for public professions such as teaching and nursing, although these are less attractive than they were during the post-2008 recession.

Church universities know that, like all educational institutions, they will have to cope with shifts in demography and the UK’s economy, as well as more unpredictable factors such as government policy and the changing tastes of students. Unknown unknowns might well floor them, but known unknowns can, at least, be planned for.

When attempting to future-proof their universities, church vice-chancellors must work on assets that are still bankable. For many church universities, their location is an important asset, as are good transport links that ensure relatively cheap travel costs.

Church universities should also acknowledge their academic strength. There can be no compromise on the quality of learning and teaching programmes: feedback needs to be monitored for areas that need improvement, because shortcomings can be exposed on social media instantly and ruthlessly, causing reputational damage that can take years to repair. Better to act early where student grumbles might be justified rather than take a risk.

I ASSUME that all universities have a strategic plan for the next decade which recognises many of the challenges that they will face; but are they prepared for the unexpected?

What, for example, is the higher-education equivalent of the shift in retailing to online shopping? While online courses may not have taken off in the same way as the retail revolution, because of the value of community in learning, university planners cannot say that there will not be shifts in learning and study patterns.

Also, are the church universities talking to the Government and employers about more vocational degrees or postgraduate qualifications that they could offer?

Finally, do students see the words of the mission statements in the prospectus played out in reality when they visit the campus — either at the point of making a choice, or when they arrive to take up a place?

Are the Cathedral Group’s universities living up to their Christian ethos, or just offering a good place to spend three years of a student’s life? A Christian ethos is the greatest asset that a church university possesses, but only if it is put into practice at every level, and across every activity.

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