When it comes to the reform Higher Education the two main pillars of debate are funding and easing access for disadvantaged students to good universities , but there is much more that should be  on the reform agenda than these two issues. For example:


Vice Chancellors Pay 

Vice Chancellors are very well paid indeed, for the most part, and have largely escaped the cold winds of austerity. The big question is- Why? They are hardly, after all,  a group that exhibits inspired leadership or creative and innovative thinking, across the board. If their pay were linked to employment rates for their graduates, ie those who have graduate level jobs,  within six months of leaving their institutions, many, perhaps  most, would suffer long term drops in income. The highest paid university chief in the UK in 2013/14 received a £623,000 salary and benefits package. The outgoing vice chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, Prof Neil Gorman, earned £170,000 more than his next highest paid counterpart. Nottingham Trent said the figure included benefits accrued over a five-year period.

The average vice chancellor salary in 2013/14 was £260,000. And London Metropolitan University awarded Prof Malcolm Gillies a staggering £453,000

What is the reputation of London Met and its degrees -among employers? I think we know.  It has one of the worst retention rates too (see below) so it manages to waste quite a lot of taxpayers money.  Forget  all the  self-serving tosh about market forces, which is seldom  if ever backed by convincing   evidence,  nobody believes that most of these VC packages can be justified, using any benchmark that has credibility. Something has  got to give, as this largesse, care  of the taxpayer ,is unsustainable. With many cutting work forces, we are likely to see tensions develop over the medium term.

 Degree Grading and inflation 

UK universities may shift their system for awarding degrees to be more in line with the US system. The current system is no longer fit for purpose, a government-commissioned advisory group said recently.  More than 20 universities began testing the use of a grade point average (GPA) in 2013. The GPA system awards students a points score on completion of their degree. UCL is among several in the UK to already run the GPA alongside the traditional degree classification.

The two-year pilot, ordered by the government, was aimed at addressing concerns that the traditional honours classification, now more than 200 years old, is outdated.

Critics of the first, 2:1 or 2:2 categories have said its broad marking points make it difficult to distinguish between the best applicants. For instance a 2:1 is required by many jobs, but as more than 60 per cent of students graduated with a first or 2:1 last year  so distinguishing between candidates can be tough.

More universities are awarding First Class degrees too , many more than, say ,20 years ago. It can’t be because students are brighter. Maybe they are working harder, or they are being better taught and supported, if so ,where is the evidence? The strong suspicion is that there is grade inflation. Certainly employers are not finding that students are  any brighter, nor are they finding that they have better skills to cope more easily in the job market.  Also, as employers know, there is little equivalence in the value of degrees in similar subjects between different institutions- those at the top of the league (Oxbridge and Russell Group) and those at the bottom. Students in these not very similar institutions  are investing the same amounts of money in their degrees, though the value of the  respective degrees in the job market clearly  differs.  And, with so many people obtaining degree qualifications there are concerns that academic credentials are losing meaning and value.


Private Sector 

One of the key aims of the previous Government’s higher education policy had been to increase choice and competition in the HE market. A controversial aspect of this policy was the Government’s rapid expansion of the private higher education sector. This looks likely to continue. With students having to invest in their own HE, students influence on HE Institutions will increase and they will use their ability to choose between institutions and sectors. The customer will become king which will be a shock to many HEIs.  Students   will shop around globally to see what best suits their needs. Our universities have not yet realised that this is already happening.  For many years there have been private providers (also referred to as alternative learning providers) in the higher education sector. Private higher education institutions receive no direct public funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) but some receive fees for certain courses, through the student loans system.

Alternative providers are generally small: two thirds are specialist institutions that offer courses in areas such as business, IT, theology and alternative medicine.  In the past private providers offered mostly sub-degree courses to overseas students. However the number of home students applying for their courses is increasing.

In July 2010, just three months after coming to power, the previous Government created the first new private university in over 30 years when it conferred university college status on BPP.

The next year, the Government published the 2011 Higher Education White Paper – Students at the Heart of the System: in this, the Government committed to opening up the higher education market, and as part of this process it increased the maximum tuition fee loan available to full-time students studying eligible courses at alternative providers from £3,375 to £6,000 per year. Following this, in June 2012, the criteria for the granting of university status was changed to allow smaller institutions to qualify.

There are now eight private higher education institutions with degree-awarding powers in England (up from four in 2009), four of which have university status (up from one in 2009).

Some, such as BPP University, are for-profit, while others, such as the University of Law, have charitable status. Only one, though, the University of Buckingham, offers a similar range of courses to public universities. Whether the private sector develops into a viable complement to the public sector, filling gaps in provision and offering low-cost flexible courses, remains to be seen but the laggardly performance of some publicly funded institutions provides a big opportunity for private providers.

Much could depend on whether the new Government tackles the overdue issue of reviewing the entire higher education regulatory framework – this step could improve confidence in the sector and ensure that students are well served by all alternative providers. The fact is current institutions, broadly speaking, do not respond to market demands. The key messages every player in the system needs to accept that the new student consumer is  now king and standing still is no longer  an option. They have to keep moving forward, they need to innovate and be more flexible  in the offers they provide students and be  more relevant to the needs of both students and employers.  Universities will need to respond to the changing demands and expectations of present and future students.

So Some Outstanding questions:

  • What scope is there for alternative providers to deliver further innovation?
  • Is the balance in funding between publicly financed higher education providers and alternative providers right?
  • When will legislation appear that offers a new regulatory framework for all providers of higher education?

Innovative and Flexible Learning 

Where are innovative models of flexible and more affordable learning? Why not have more two year concentrated courses? Why not more work based learning in HE? What about more earn-as-you-learn degrees? There is a demand for new  more flexible approaches.  So,  less swanning around, and propagation of the  one size fits all model-  much more   of a focus on work, preparing undergraduates for the real world of work. Increased competition for students between universities and colleges, and increased direct pressure from students, is intended to prompt greater responsiveness in higher education but the evidence on this is hard to find. On Line courses and MOOCS are growing in popularity, enabling universities to tap into the global student populations, but few institutions here offer this amount of flexibility and are well behind the curve. Inevitably the US takes the lead here.


Just as the curriculum,  teaching and learning are ready for disruption, so too is assessment. Traditionally, universities have hovered between end-of-course formal exams and either modular assessment or dissertations, or some combination of the three. In some places, especially the PhD, its ‘defence’ in an oral exam still holds sway.  Meanwhile, in the real world, technology can have a transformational impact. Pilots are assessed through sophisticated computer simulations and so on. Traditional approaches to assessment can be too restrictive-more ICT options need to be explored. Also why not assess teams of students on a project basis as part of the assessment process as this is more relevant to what happens in the work place? There is still too much testing of students’ short term memories rather than how they apply knowledge with others to create solutions to challenges.

Part Time Graduates 

Since 2010-11, part-time undergraduate entrants have fallen by 105,000 (40 per cent), while on postgraduate programmes the fall was 25,000 (27 per cent). We live in an age of lifelong learning, so the fall in part time graduates in worrying. More attention needs to be paid to the reasons underlying this fall

Mature students 

The drop in undergraduate applications and acceptances from mature students is much greater than that for young students. While acceptances among UK applicants aged 18 and under fell by 1.7 per cent between 2011 and 2012, acceptances among those aged 20 and over fell by 7.1 per cent. This was despite increases in the total numbers of people in their twenties and thirties in the general population. People in the jobs market   increasingly change careers and re-train, so why this fall?


According to UCAS data, 18-year-olds from the most advantaged areas are still three times more likely to apply to higher education than those from the most disadvantaged area. Sutton Trust data suggests that access agreements have had a marginal effect on entry to the best (Russell Group) universities. According to UCAS, 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas are 80 per cent more likely to apply to higher education in 2013 than they were in 2004 .According to the Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, “the most advantaged students are still six times more likely than the most disadvantaged to enter an elite university than the most disadvantaged”. Of course universities are making  bigger efforts in this area and there is a regulator with a stick to encourage them to deliver  but so far the results are disappointing. Part of the problem is that disadvantaged pupils are either getting poor guidance or no guidance at all  about  the qualifications they should choose if they aspire to a university education.And too few  FSM pupils are getting good GCSEs.

Students Face to Face Time 

The face time that students receive from academics has declined significantly over the last ten years. How many hours a week will you be busy in lectures, seminars or one-to-one sessions with subject tutors? It depends on the course you take, but because the massive expansion in universities was underfunded, academics can’t give students the individual quality time they used to, and that impacts on the quality of the education being provided to students.  Vice-chancellors will privately acknowledge somewhat wearily that the number of contact hours students receive is a major issue with parents specifically those who are graduates themselves, who compare and contrast what they experienced, with whats  being offered to their children, and they dont like what they see.  Students need face-to-face time with tutors in smaller groups to develop and test their understanding. They also need direct feedback, the quality of which varies considerably between courses and universities. University websites and prospectuses are failing to give a detailed picture of what work will be like at university and what students can expect in terms of face to face time.


International Students 

A hostile immigration policy is having an effect on the attractiveness of the UK to foreign students. The Home Office continues to include students in their target to reduce net migration. The post-study work rules imposed on international students who complete their studies are less generous than in many other countries. A sensible policy would be to give an unequivocal welcome to all legitimate international students.

Numbers show significant fluctuations in some of the major exporters of students to English higher education, including an 18 per cent increase in students from China since 2010-11 and a 29 per cent decrease in students from India. But there is strong anecdotal evidence that international students are now being deterred from applying to UK universities and the USA, Canada and Australasia will be the clear beneficiaries of this policy. Vice Chancellors are certainly concerned. Some universities are setting up satellites abroad but this represents a small minority. There is growing evidence that American and European Universities are attracting more of our brightest students. Oxbridge’s arcane interview process is thought to discriminate against bright state educated pupils who are beginning in greater numbers to look to the USA. .  One Harvard bound private pupil summed up his  reactions to  the prospect of  an Ivy league education thus-at  the Oxbridge interviews they asked me   what I   could do for them, at Harvard they told me  what they would  do for me  having looked at my interests….

We may be second in the pecking order of world class universities but this position is under threat due to complacency and inability to place the needs of our students first and due to the growing perception abroad that we are hostile to foreign students.

Advice and Guidance

Poor, or no, advice in schools at critical stages acts as a barrier to social mobility and improved access to HEIs. The provision of high-quality information, advice and guidance is critical at an early  age to help pupils at school and college to make important choices about their future careers. Recent changes to this provision now mean that independent and impartial careers guidance no longer extends to post-16 provision, the point at which students really do need formal careers guidance support. There is little face to face advice from professionals available. Advice needs to be   consistent, high quality and available to all ages.   Both social mobility and Access  is damaged by a lack of good careers guidance.  The current system . if you choose to call it that, of careers education and guidance, is patchy and fragmented which means that many young people are not making informed choices, and, indeed, in some instances are making the wrong choices ie choosing qualifications that are not appropriate for Higher Education, though they may be planning on applying to universities. We know that Russell group universities favour particular A levels-and if disadvantaged students dont know about this it reduces their chances, self-evidently, of getting into a Russell group university.


Official figures show that more than one-in-14 students quit higher education altogether after less than 12 months and numbers soared to almost a quarter at the worst-performing institution. In all, an estimated one-in-10 students will fail to finish the course they started after either quitting higher education, switching to other courses or leaving with a lesser degree. Across Britain, 7.4 per cent of students – including school-leavers and mature students – dropped out of university in 2010/11, the latest available figures. It represented 27,230 students compared with 31,755 – or 8.6 per cent – a year earlier. In England, the highest drop-out rate was the 16.6 per cent recorded at London Metropolitan University. An estimated 21.7 per cent of London Met students will fail to properly compete the course they started. These rates are unacceptable. If Universities cannot retain their students and have a poor post-graduation employment record they should reform, merge or frankly go out of business.  Undergraduates would face better prospects seeking direct employment or going into structured training programmes and  high quality Apprenticeships, without the burden of debt that graduates have to bear.

Post HE Employment

For first-degree graduates, early-career salaries have risen only slightly over the last six years. Some universities are building employability more firmly into their strategies but many are not.  For Imperial College London  the per cent of its graduates  in employment 6 months after graduating is  89.9- Which is at the top end of the scale. The problem with these  post -graduation employment figures  is that they don’t differentiate between what kind of employment (i.e. working the checkouts in Sainsbury’s versus a competitive graduate scheme ie Teach First) and don’t  take into account graduates who would prefer to wait (maybe even up to 6 months sometimes) and find a good full-time job doing internships instead.   However,  alarmingly, nearly 40 per cent of graduates are looking for work six months after graduation, while a quarter are still unemployed after a year, according research released in early 2014 .Conducted by the graduate recruitment website, the survey also shows that almost half of all graduates wished they had steered clear of academic courses, opting for ‘something more vocational’ instead.  An ONS report published in 2013 also showed that 47 per cent of graduates employed within six months were working in jobs that did not require a degree. Young people are looking at these figures and beginning to ask whether a university education is all worth it.Young people might also reflect on the fact that the  wages gap between those with and without a degree is narrowing, as graduates are typically earning over £1,000 less now than they were five years ago. Yes,  graduates benefit from an earnings premium over non-graduates, but….  The truth is  that for some university may not be an appropriate choice, although there is  real pressure for young people to go to university if they have the right qualifications as it is seen as a passport to join the middle classes.


An IPPR report  (see below)says that universities will increasingly find it difficult to cater for everyone. Universities will need to be sharper and clearer about what they offer and to whom. What we have now is too many universities, stretched too thin offering degrees that are of insufficient quality and are not rated by employers.

Pastoral Care

Pastoral care in many universities is  perceived as poor. Many school leavers away from home for the first time often feel isolated and unsupported and schools don’t offer support in non-cognitive coping skills that might ease the transition from secondary school to university.  Academic problems, personal and financial difficulties ,Ill Health  –  both mental and physical- these are all experienced by students.   The Higher Education  institutions’ slowness in responding to mental health needs of students is seen as a  big challenge. Depression in young men, particularly, at university, is an enduring problem  and more needs to be done to spot and support those in difficulties.

Student satisfaction

According to the NSS- Some 86 per cent of the 321,000 final-year undergraduates who responded to the latest survey said they were satisfied overall with their course, up from 85 per cent last year. Assessment and feedback was again rated the lowest by students, with just 72 per cent saying they were satisfied with this, the same level as last year.

But if you talk to real students about their university experience after graduation these NSS surveys don’t seem to tally up at all with their experiences. You hear grumbles about poor teaching, limited access to tutors, poor pastoral care,  virtually no feedback in many cases, poor quality lectures, poor careers advice etc. I smell a rat. Does the NSS adequately measures student satisfaction? Are the standard, multiple-choice questions the NSS asks really able to gauge the student experience in any meaningful way? I think not.  Buckingham, the only fully fledged private university, has been top or near top of the National Student Survey (NSS) in student satisfaction since 2006.  Also in respect of Career prospects, it is Ranked 1st out of 119 universities (Guardian University Guide 2014). Interesting that.


You will find most universities are pro-EU. If the UK withdraws from the European Union, that will shut off a major source of UK universities research funding. While the UK has just 0.9 per cent of the world’s population, it accounts for 4.1 per cent of researchers, 6.4 per cent of research articles and 15.9 per cent of the world’s most highly-cited articles.  But there are real concerns that money from the government for research is in decline. The 2014 Autumn Statement foresaw £92 billion of fiscal tightening during the next Parliament. The Institute for Fiscal Studies(IFS)said this could mean a cut of 40.1 per cent in the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills(BIS).The knock on effects for Research budgets could be grim although there is evidence that public spending on research can ‘crowd in’ funding from other sources.

And, on the financial/funding side:

Fees in England are nearly four times higher than in Ireland and seven times higher than the next most expensive country in the EU, the Netherlands. English students now graduate with over three times more student debt than the average American student.

But it looks like the long-term costs of the post-2012 system could surpass those for the system it replaced because of high loan write-off cost. So the funding model may not be sustainable over the longer term.

This is how a 2013 report for the IPPR think tank,on the future of global, HE concluded:

‘In conclusion, the combination of marketisation – the student consumer as king with options outside universities for talented students too – and globalisation will lead to universities being less and less contained within national systems and more and more both benchmarked globally and a leading part of the growth of knowledge economics – collaborating and competing. In the new world the learner will be in the driver’s seat, with a keen eye trained on value. For institutions, deciding to embrace this new world may turn out to be the only way to avoid the avalanche that is coming. Just as an avalanche shapes the mountain, so the changes ahead will fundamentally alter the landscape for universities.’

This seems to me to encapsulate the very   real challenges currently facing the HE sector.

IPPR report ‘An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead ‘-Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, Saad Rizvi March 2013


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