Challenges ahead for UK higher ed in 2018

Competition for high rankings across the global universities sector is getting even harder says Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham

How do you expect to see the effects of Brexit (continue to) play out in HE this year?

There is likely to be a drop in applications from prospective EU students due to the uncertainty sector-wide. Early signs from UCAS also suggest this. However, overall applications are up at the University of Buckingham so it has not hit us yet. We have heard from other universities that academics from the EU are leaving or expressing uncertainty, but it is not something we are experiencing.

Will you be looking to attract more students from other parts of the world as Brexit’s effects are felt?

We have always attracted students globally, and we will continue to grow those markets, as well welcoming European students. In 2017 alone our new intake of students came from over 70 countries and we have over 100 nations represented on campus overall.

UK institutions performed well in the world university rankings and league tables during 2017. Do you think they will be able to sustain this during 2017? Why (not)?

While Oxford and Cambridge universities topped the world university rankings last year, there was some slippage among the other leading universities. Universities in other countries are improving so the competition for high rankings is getting even harder. Brexit will have had no direct effect so far, but it may be that anticipation of it is causing some retrenchment and that is impacting on research output and international outlook which is crucial to the rankings.

How will the sector continue to work with the Teaching Excellence Framework this year?

The sector as a whole will be looking at the results to see what improvements they can make to do better next time round. We were ranked top in the country in a table published by the Times Higher Education. We were awarded TEF gold, the best ranking so we will look at ways of maintaining the excellent standard of teaching offered at the University of Buckingham.

What lessons learned in 2017 will help us prepare for the year ahead?

The university-wide fall in applications in 2017 is expected to continue, as the size of the cohort shrinks and attractive alternatives become available. Buckingham bucked the trend with a 20% rise in applications and enrolments but we must prepare for an increasingly competitive environment. We are looking at all the courses we offer to ensure that we are providing the right courses to suit the market.

What do you expect will be the continuing impacts of the Higher Education Bill?

We expect to see new providers coming into the market place and more institutions offering two-year degrees following the change in legislation and we welcome this. We pioneered two-year degrees just over 40 years ago and were recently awarded University of the Year for Teaching Quality by the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide so we are market leaders. We have shown how this is a successful model for the future and would therefore hope others can set up courses which are equally as successful.

Do you expect your institution and/or the sector as a whole to increase its reliance on digital learning this coming year? What will be the main areas of uptake?

We are providing more Moocs. Our Mooc on Stonehenge has proved to be very successful and as a result we will look at what others we can provide. There is still no substitute for excellent face to face teaching and learning and we are passionately committed to this, along with a recognition that our students need high quality remote access and virttual learning environments.

What are your thoughts on the creation, and likely impact, of the new Office for Students?

We think it is a positive development and we look forward to working closely with it. Some worry that there is a risk that it will impinge on a university’s autonomy which is crucial to its success. UK Universities of all kinds are already heavily regulated with high levels of quality assurance. This supports the UK’s global position as an HE system trusted by students and researchers all over the world.

What are your expectations of the Government’s impending review of Higher Education funding, mentioned in Theresa May’s leader’s speech at the Conservative conference?

Universities have benefited greatly in the past few years from student tuition fees and the generous loan arrangements for students. These are costing the taxpayer more than intended and so may have to be reformed. The government is also under pressure to find more money for schools. It is likely to be a harsher financial climate for universities in the coming years. They will have to raise much more of their income independent of government funding. Become more like Buckingham in fact.