The rights & responsibilities of the university sector in the EU referendum debate

Today, Universities UK (UUK) is officially launching Universities for Europe, a campaign on behalf of the higher education sector to highlight how the European Union (EU) helps universities benefit individuals, the economy and society in the UK.

Hosted by UCL, with speeches from Chukka Umunna MP, Rt Hon Damian Green MP, and Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow, the Universities for Europe launch signals UUK’s commitment to playing a positive and proactive role in the national debate on the UK’s relationship with the EU over the coming months.

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OU head: Are more students from poorer backgrounds going to university?

The Vice-Chancellor of The Open University looks at the numbers behind claims by the Chancellor in his Budget that more students from poorer backgrounds are going to university.

Standing at the dispatch box to deliver his budget yesterday, the Chancellor made a significant statement about student numbers.  We were told that record numbers of students from low income backgrounds are applying to universities.  I think it’s worth taking a closer look at the figures involved to see what sort of picture they actually paint.

Let’s start with the often-reported claim that the rise in tuition fees has not deterred people from applying to go to university.  This is only true in respect of full-time students.  There has been a 41% decline in undergraduates studying part-time in England over the last five years.  Prior to the rise in tuition fees, the proportion of undergraduates studying part-time in England was one third; it has now fallen to one fifth. Continue reading

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Big announcements for universities in the Budget

Although today’s Budget was in addition to the Spring Budget, there were certainly plenty of big announcements for the higher education sector – and some controversial ones.

Maintenance grants to loans

The headlines will be dominated by the decision to abolish student maintenance grants in England from 2016-17 and replace them with loans – and to increase the maximum amount available to £8,200 per year outside of London. This is up from the current figure of £7,245, which includes a mixture of loan and grant.

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The case for part-time study

While the number of students going to university full-time has risen, the part-time sector has experienced a sharp decline, wasting hundreds of thousands of lives, writes the Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, Peter Horrocks.

Over the coming weeks and months, the Government’s policies on higher education will start to take shape.  We already know some of the issues everyone will be talking about, with tuition fees and whether young people are getting value for money high on the list.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the focus is on school leavers – after all, this is the experience shared by the overwhelming majority of policy makers and the journalists who report on the sector.  But behind the rise in the number of full-time students lies a troubling picture for an increasingly critical part of our university system.

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Universities and the productivity challenge

With an emergency budget and an expectedly difficult comprehensive spending review looming on the horizon, Universities UK is preparing to make a strong case for why more investment in universities is needed to deliver on the government’s economic policy objectives.  Our report on the economic role of universities outlines some key reasons, touching upon how the higher education sector can help overcome the systemic weaknesses that are holding UK growth back.

Of all the challenges facing our economy at the moment, the UK’s dismal productivity growth record since the 2008 global recession (see figure below) has clearly emerged as the number-one concern for the incoming government, and with good reason. If productivity remains stubbornly low, then clearly our economy is not investing enough in its workforce and infrastructure, and is not innovating enough; the government has an essential role to play in turning this around.

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Stand up and be counted on Europe

I am just back from Brussels after chairing the European Commission’s CITIES 2015 forum. It was organised to get support from politicians, policy makers, business leaders and researchers across Europe for the Commission’s new plans for an urban agenda for Europe. In fact, I found their plan a bit disappointing – offering to do less than I think it could and should. It needs to be more ambitious.

Nevertheless it got me reflecting on the huge significance of Europe to our cities and universities in the UK. Leaving Europe at this point would be a disaster for both. Much of my academic research in recent years has shown how much we can learn from the best cities in Europe. It is no accident that countries with more high performing cities than the UK also have far more successful national economies. Germany is the most obvious – but not the only example (cf. Second Tier Cities in Europe). We need to be in Europe, be part of that debate and show how cities can forge national success. Since the government with its Northern Powerhouse and devolution agenda  emphasised the importance of cities to national success, it seems perverse that it is now risking cutting us off from stronger relationships with successful European cities.

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Correcting misleading portrayals of international students

A recent article in the Sunday Telegraph portrays a misleading picture of international university students who come to the UK.

Firstly, although the Home Office categorises international students as “migrants”, the majority of the public do not. Polls have shown that only 22% of the UK public consider international students to be immigrants, and that most people feel positively towards students who come here to study, recognising the contribution they make to Britain financially, culturally and academically.

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Growing support for postgraduate study

This blog post was co-authored by Daniel Hurley & Martina Tortis who are both policy analysts at Universities UK

Over the past six months, postgraduate education has come increasingly under the spotlight. Two government announcements recently open for consultation – a loans system for taught Masters students in England, and proposals to strengthen support for postgraduate research students – signal a growing awareness of the value of higher study to the individual and the wider public.

Not only do postgraduates typically enjoy an uplift in earnings compared to those with only an undergraduate degree, (around £5,500 for Masters graduates), they are less likely to be unemployed and – as more and more jobs require a postgraduate qualification – make a key contribution to the UK’s skills and knowledge bases.

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The Queen’s speech & higher education

Long before the election results were known, political soothsayers were already playing the “guess what will make it into the legislative programme for a hung Parliament” game: predicating which bits of which manifestos would stand and which fall. In the end this exercise was redundant as we are in an era of a majority Conservative government with the power to bring forward its programme as set out in their 2015 manifesto.

Today’s Queen’s Speech has announced 25 new bills, as well as one draft bill.

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Election reflections from Wales

If you’d told me on 7 May that we would wake up the next morning to find that Wales was the last remaining rainbow part of the political map, I’d have been profoundly sceptical. That, however, is how it’s turned out, with 11 Welsh Conservative seats (up 3), 25 Labour seats (down 1), 1 Lib Dem (down 2) and Plaid Cymru unchanged on 3. Here at Aberystwyth University, we’re now in the constituency with the last Lib Dem MP standing in Wales.

At last week’s UUK Members’ Meeting, many were saying they’d got the predictions wrong before the election, including sundry distinguished political commentators. Nobody had been quite convinced we would have a Westminster government at this point, and we definitely have with rather more of the same Cabinet Ministers.So, what is coming for higher education? I did send our Director of Planning a little message sometime in the dark watches of election night to suggest we could ease off on scenario planning for the £6k fee(If those of you in England think modelling that was a challenge, try sorting it out in terms of the likely Barnett consequentials). There doesn’t at the moment seem to be much indication that the fee will rise, which might well have led to greater differentiation on price but we must watch this space.

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