NIC MITCHELL gives EUPRIO members heading to the UK for the 2013 annual conference a quick overview of the “radical” or “bonkers” brave new world of English higher education.

It’s been an ‘interesting’ 15 months since I wrote the first of my semi-regular blogs for the EUPRIO website in which I tried to explain to friends and colleagues in mainland Europe just what was going on with English higher education.

Perhaps, it was a bold move, because few of us knew for sure just what kind of genie our Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was letting out of the bottle.

But now, as EUPRIO prepares to descend on Canterbury for the 2013 annual conference, it’s a good time to take stock of where England’s higher education revolution has reached and where it might be heading!

In my first blog (1), I followed the late and great education commentator, Mike Baker, in turning to Lewis Carroll’s Alice-in-Wonderland to help make sense of things like the near trebling of undergraduate tuition fees for UK and EU students to £9,000 (€10,500) per-year – and the rather radical idea of slashing direct public funding for teaching in English universities by nearly two-thirds by 2015. (Please Note: This blog is just about English HE, by the way, and not about Scotland and the rest of the UK.)

‘Nothing is quite as it should be’

Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)[/caption]Now, like the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I feel nothing is quite as it should be; especially when the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), Sir Alan Langlands, says the rest of the world thinks “We’re completely bonkers” (2).

Sir Alan used the ‘B’ word while addressing this year’s HEFCE’s annual conference, speaking directly after David Willetts, the universities and science minister, and his remark was reported by Times Higher Education (25 April, 2013) under the headline ‘Bonkers’: so is there something crazy about the English funding system?

Perhaps a stiff gin-and-tonic is needed rather than Lewis Carroll to make sense of things this time round! But Europe is watching and wondering about the repercussions of England’s unfinished higher education revolution, so I really should press on…

But before I do, I must let the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have their say. Speaking to the British Telegraph newspaper, a spokesman from the department responsible for universities, said: “Our reforms have laid the foundations for a better funded and more competitive sector, with a ring-fenced research budget, more resources for teaching, and a renewed focus on the quality of the student experience” (3).

So, what happened?

Well, we’ve only had one cohort paying what the rest of Europe must think are exorbitant tuition fees – the 2012-13 intake and a decline in the number of home and EU students entering English universities was predicted, especially as so many students put off their ‘gap-year’ plans the year before to avoid the fees hike.

But the drop of 47,000 full-time home and EU students was much bigger than forecast.

A HEFCE report published in March, Higher Education in England: Impact of the 2012 reforms, (4) said it represented a 12% fall in full-time UK and EU undergraduates entering the English sector this year.


The size of the slump shocked many, including prestigious universities like Southampton, which began the 2012-13 academic year with 600 fewer students than its 2011 intake. (5)

Matters were certainly not helped by a scramble for top-flight school leavers – the so-called AAB ‘A’ level students.

English universities could recruit as many AABs as they liked, but were tightly restricted on how many others they could enrol in a bid to safeguard the public purse; as home/EU students are eligible for loans to cover the tuition fees and only repay these when earning over £21,000 (€24,500). One Vice-Chancellor explained the system to me as: ‘The student doesn’t pay, only the graduate’ – even though they are the same person!

Regrettably, as I blogged last summer, (6) the new fees regime coincided with the first drop for years in the number of British ‘A’ level students getting the top grades – and there were about 5,000 fewer AAB ‘A’ level students around than expected.

Universities UK in a report just published, titled The funding environment for universities: An assessment, (7) gives a pretty detailed account of the impact of the new funding regime, and says: “Overall recruitment to higher education institutions in England for 2012-13 was 9% lower than anticipated” and suggests “this shortfall may, in part, be due to concerns about the penalties for over recruitment”.

Whatever the reasons – and there are surely many – English universities emerged from the 2012-13 recruitment round with 47,000 fewer home and EU students enrolling than the year before. Put another way, this was 28,000 fewer than forecast after universities revised their targets downwards in preparation for the introduction of the £9,000 fees.

More woes

I don’t want to over-labour the woes English universities face, but the Universities UK and HEFCE reports also highlight more problems, which may, or may not, be related to the fees hike for full-time undergraduates. According to the HEFCE report, since 2010-11 the number of part-time undergraduate entrants has fallen by 105,000 (40%), while on postgraduate programmes the fall was 25,000 (27%).

Immigration row

On top of all this, there has been an unseemly row about whether international students coming to the UK should be treated as “immigrants”. This has already led to tighter visa controls and checks to make sure they are genuine students and London Metropolitan University temporarily lost its “highly trusted status” to recruit non-EU students.(8)

This row has had a serious impact, particularly in old Commonwealth countries like India and Pakistan, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron flew to India earlier this year to try to reassure everyone that there was no limit on the number of international students coming to the UK. A hard-sell, perhaps, as international students are included in the overall immigration figures that his government wants to cut. We’ll have to see if they were convinced!

Not all bad

But despite everything, England and the UK as a whole remains second only to the United States in terms of its pulling power for international students; its universities are in second place to the US in the world rankings – with 48 of its universities in the Top 400 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-13; and the reputation for quality of British higher education remains largely intact despite the upheavals it is going through.

English universities knew, of course, what might be coming! Most built up big cash reserves to help them over the unpredictable first few years – but many in the sector are now voicing concern that another year like 2012-13 will cause real problems.

What happens next?

The signs for the future look a little more promising, at least for 2013-14, with UK and EU applications up by 3% (13,000 students) by the close of the main UCAS deadline.

International applications are also holding up – thanks largely to China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore. But there’s continued concerns with markets like India.

There’s also been a relaxation of the number controls for good ‘A’ level students, with the bar for recruiting as many students as universities like without penalties being lowered to ABB grades for 2013-14 entry.

As for the longer-term, there will be a general election in Britain in 2015 and the main Labour opposition – which looks on course, at the moment, to be the largest party – has a policy to reduce tuition fees to £6,000 and restore some of the teaching grant to universities. Mind, their possible coalition partners – the Liberal Democrats – had a policy before the last election to scrap tuition fees and they ended up voting with the Conservatives to allow universities to charge up to £9,000. So, don’t hold your breath in thinking the fees will suddenly come tumbling down.


I hope this blog has helped to clarify things.

EUPRIO members: you are most welcome to England, as are your students, and please note different things are happening in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; so just take this as my overview of the English higher education scene.

Enjoy your brief stay in Canterbury, and I am pretty confident we’ll be returning to look at the winners and losers of the English unfinished university revolution at some date in the future.


1. Times Higher Education “Bonkers” story.

2. Telegraph report on English universities missing recruitment targets.

3. Guardian story on Southampton University’s ‘wake-up’ call after intake fall.