At our recent Chair of Audit Committee Roundtable, we were joined by Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), who led us through a discussion of the higher education landscape. We covered 4 main areas including the Office for Students (OfS), International Students, Funding and Student maintenance. The key points are below.
The Office for Students (OfS)
Some thought the OfS would regulate in the same way as its predecessor but they are not there to be friends with the sector and have a very different job to do. This is demonstrated, for example, by their recruitment where they are keen to recruit people with other regulatory backgrounds, and less so from higher education backgrounds.
The OfS have a lot of difficult issues to deal with such as sexual harassment on campus, free speech, academic freedom. This may have resulted in them being overstretched as a result and, if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. They perhaps need a clearer sense from ministers of the things that really matter.
There is now a legal duty for the sector to actively promote academic freedom and free speech; the OfS should be advising in 2024 as to what this means. They do now have a free speech champion and, sooner or later, further requirements will be overseen by them about promoting free speech.
If there is a change in Government in the 2024 election then it is likely that the chair of the OfS will change as Lord Wharton still retains the conservative whip in the House of Lords. However it seems unlikely that an incoming Labour government would immediately change the OfS because it is unlikely to be high in the list of priorities.
Some of HEPI’s biggest pieces of work in the past ten years have been in relation to international students; for example, the detailed economic modelling on the impact of Brexit on the sector, where HEPI said that just over half of EU students would disappear which proved to be the reality.
HEPI have also calculated the tax and NI contributions made by the international students who stay in the UK to work as well as the economic contribution of international students by parliamentary constituency to demonstrate to each member of the House of Commons how much international students are worth in their area.
In the work HEPI did in relation to international student focus groups, they found that the students believed that sometimes they are paying more but getting less. For example, there were particular concerns around the level of career support with the view that careers services were often experts in the UK labour market but not elsewhere.
In addition, the policy backdrop for international students has been somewhat turbulent and the new dependents rule has now tightened the rules again. From 1 January 2024, changes to the UK Student visa rules mean that international students will no longer be able to bring their dependant partner or children to the UK, unless they are enrolled in a PhD or postgraduate research programme. Unfortunately, with this new restriction, there isn’t any official data on the impact on applications. It is expected though that migration policy in relation to international students will now be stable until the next election, and potentially afterwards. However if the migration statistics change considerably, then that could encourage Government to put in place further restrictions.
The funding system we have in England is sustainable, but the funding situation we have at this moment, with no inflation uplifts, is not. The introduction of the current system allowed the removal of student number caps which means that good potential students are not being prevented from attending; there is little appetite to revert to caps.
It is only very recently that the sector has actively been talking about how the fees are spent. It is even more recently that more is being said about needing increases in inflation to those fees. But £9k in 2023 is £6k in 2012 so there is a lot of catching up to do. But given that it is many many years since a party committed to free education won the election, it would seem that the system doesn’t need changing but it does need to be allowed to respond to the actual underlying costs.
Inflation has been around 10% recently but maintenance support packages have been increasing by less than 3% a year, and rents have been going up at about 7 or 8% a year. So, if you put the last two years together, RPI inflation, which is what is used to determine things such as rent in the student accommodation market, has been over 20%, rents have been going up by around 15 or 16%, but maintenance support for students has gone up about 6%. HEPI did a report recently which showed that if you are getting the average maintenance loan and you are paying the average rent, 99.7% of your maintenance loan is going on rent, leaving you nothing left over for other things.
Students, of course, are very resilient and what our survey shows is that the way they are responding to this is by getting part time work on the side. HEPI also found that in 2023, for the first time ever, more than half of students are carrying out paid employment during term time, and many of them are doing dangerously high hours of paid employment. All the evidence shows that, depending on what course you are doing, if you are working up to 15 hours a week in paid employment, your academic studies don’t normally suffer, in fact, sometimes you do better, because you’re forced to be more regimented in your scheduling. But if you do more than about 15 hours paid employment on top of your academic studies, you’re more likely to drop out, you’re less likely to get a first or a 2:1; your academic studies really suffer. Sadly, along with the other items in the long list of demands for Government, students do need more generous maintenance support.
The latest UCAS statistics show that demand for university is falling, not rising; that is the case in Australia as well. It is thought that in Australia the decline in demand has been partly caused by the tight labour market, which means you can get a job without a degree, coupled with the high level of debt arising from going to university and negative media comment. So, positivity about going to university is important.
We are in a slightly odd position in that the Conservatives and Labour are not actually that far apart on higher education. It is thought that both are reconciled to fees, both want to see big increases in research funding, both are in a similar position when it comes to rules around international students, and yet the rhetoric tells you something completely different. We have a government that was producing memes about science being woke and want to send a signal that there are too many people going to university and too many universities, and we have a Labour party which is trying to send a different message. So, the public message is rather different to the hard reality of policy.
Perhaps, leading up to the election, every institution should invite party candidates onto campus to demonstrate why their university is important to the locality? This may help with having advocates of the sector.
Our next Higher Education Chair of Audit Committee roundtable will be taking place at 9am on Wednesday 27 February 2024 where we will be joined Zoe Amar, Digital Specialist discussing AI and Governance. Contact Louise Hughes: email@example.com to reserve your place.