British universities started the New Year much as they ended 2017 – on the back foot as they struggled to fend off criticism of bulging pay packets for vice-chancellors. Meanwhile staff went on strike to protect their pensions and students complained about not getting value-for-money for their £9,250 yearly tuition fees.

Suddenly UK higher education is a hot potato after years of quietly doing quite nicely while the rest of the public sector was hammered by government-inspired austerity.

Convincing students to pay for their education through ‘buy-now-pay-back-later’ government-backed loans was seen as a masterstroke in allowing universities to expand without appearing to increase the public debt.

Architect says fees system broken

Former education minister Andrew Adonis

But, now, even some of the architects of the original tuition fees system, such as Labour peer and former education minister Andrew Adonis, think the system is broken. That’s quite something coming from the man who helped treble fees from £1,000 to £3,000 as head of the Number 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair.

Perhaps the Conservative government, after getting away with trebling fees to £9,000 during their alliance with the Liberal Democrats, pushed things too far by taking the axe to maintenance grants and ignoring the outcry over ‘rip-off’ 6.1% interest rates on student loans.

Moves like scrapping bursaries for student nurses while the NHS was struggling to fill vacancies and earlier axing the Education Maintenance Allowance, or EMA, in England for 16-19 year-olds in education reinforced an impression that the Tories were ‘anti-student’ and ‘anti-young people’.

Corbyn’s pledge exposes funding uncertainty

Fees pledge from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

Or course, the total opposition to tuition fees as a matter of principle by Labour’s leftwing leader Jeremy Corbyn and his pledge to restore free undergraduate studies and grants was probably the final key in exposing divisions and uncertainty about the way UK higher education should be funded.

It also highlighted what appeared to be lukewarm opposition from most university leaders to way student debt had mounted in recent years, and gave critics an open goal to contrast the generous pay packets of the few at the top while salaries of the many working in higher education had failed to keep pace with inflation.

Inside UK campuses concern was also building against increasing managerialism and marketisation and it is hard not to notice the growing dissatisfaction among academics and other staff at the way higher education is drifting.

The strike over pensions is just the latest sign of the deterioration in labour relations. Of course, this isn’t just something happening in higher education. I know many journalists who can’t wait until the next round of voluntary redundancies to escape the pressure pot of worsening working conditions coupled with poor pay and conditions.

Where does HE go from here?

Where higher education goes from here is uncertain now that the UK government headed by Theresa May has acknowledged that students in England face “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world” and “the level of fees charged do not relate to the cost or quality of the course”.

The Prime Minister’s intervention has already seen Justine Greening dismissed as Education Secretary of State and Jo Johnson (brother of Foreign Secretary Boris) moved from Universities Minister to Transport after they both appeared to try to block the Higher Education review.

Could make things worse

But whether the review just makes things worse, as some predict, by reducing tuition fees without adequately compensating universities or via the much speculated flexible fees based on the cost of putting courses remains to be seen.

Flexible fees could result in science and technology courses, which the country says it needs more of, becoming more expensive to students who may prefer to go for the cheaper arts and humanities alternatives.

But whatever happens in the review, surely the government must see the error in getting rid of maintenance grants which have just made going to universities even more expensive for poorer students. And it should also take action to save part-time higher education and the collapse of the mature student market since 2010.

Impact of Brexit

On top of all this, universities (and we hope many in government) are concerned about the impact of Brexit on higher education.

So far, after an initial downturn in applications from students in other EU countries last year because of uncertainty over what Brexit might mean last year, interest in studying at UK universities from students in other EU countries has recovered.

In total, there was a rise of 3.4% in those applying from other parts of the bloc by the time of main UCAS deadline of 15 January 2018.

But as the Times Higher Education pointed out (15 February 2018) there were huge fluctuations in interest from different countries.

Undergraduate applications from the Republic of Ireland are down by 31% since 2012. Other countries seeing a big long-term drop in demand for UK higher education are Sweden (down 21% since 2012) and the Baltic states.

France has now overtaken Ireland, as the country with most EU applicants. It has seen a 44% rise in applications, with nearly 4,600 French students applying. The number of people applying from Italy has soared by 68% and the biggest growth in demand has been from Spain, where numbers have gone up by 140% since 2012 to 3,300, according to the Times Higher.

So a challenging year ahead for British universities and I will be looking in more depth at how UK higher education is trying to beat the Brexit blues in a future blog.

For Brexit background, see my earlier blogs from a year ago:

What Brexit means for European universities
APR• 02•17

Can UK universities remain European after Brexit?
JAN• 29•17