What are the challenges facing Higher Education in 2018?

It’s already been an eventful start to the year in world of Higher Education. On Tuesday 30 January we were joined by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in our London offices for a breakfast briefing, for around 100+ from universities across London and the South East.

The event focused on the changing policy landscape and practical steps that will help higher education institutions (HEIs) to be successful in the future. HEPI Director Nick Hillman (pictured below) opened the session covering a range of issues including the new regulatory regime and how sustainable it is; international students & Brexit; and the wider student experience (including value for money and student wellbeing).


Our own Higher Education specialists then took to the stage to talk about other important topics including aligning costs with strategic goals, international governance and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 

Here are 6 things we learned:

1. Fewer students think they get value for money

According to HEPI’s 2017 Student Academic Experience survey, the number of students who say they get poor or very poor value for money is going up. The biggest shift arose in 2012 when tuition fees were raised. 

What does this mean for policy? Three quarters of students surveyed also said they want more information on where their fees go. While Financial Directors often either say this is incredibly difficult or the information already exists in their university accounts, former Universities Minister Jo Johnson has said previously that if they do not get a grip on the challenge, he would compel them to tell students where their fees go. As Nick Hillman also noted at the briefing, if students knew all their fees didn’t go on lectures but, for instance, on the students union, sports facilities, learning resources etc they may view value for money differently.

2. Student wellbeing needs to rise up HEIs agendas

In their survey, HEPI asked the same questions as those that had been asked by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to the public about mental wellbeing. 29% of people in general say they are very satisfied with life; however only 14% of students agreed. Clearly something that should and will be higher on the agenda for HEIs.

3. International students are a huge benefit to the UK

Universities are truly global institutions, and international students in the UK have social, economic and cultural benefits in every region of the UK. PwC’s research has previously shown that 60% of international students including alumni said they are more likely to do business with the UK as a result of studying here.

A recent HEPI report now estimates that the current economic benefit of international students is £23bn a year and a cost of just £2bn a year. The average constituency benefit from international students is £31m a year. 

4. Universities need an organised data protection programme

Hilary Coote, a Senior Manager in our Data Protection Strategy, Legal and Compliance Services practice gave us an overview of data protection and stressed it is important to ensure an institution’s data processes protect the rights of individuals. Therefore an organised data protection programme is needed, with all data activities accurately recorded. There is an increasing requirement to produce an inventory of personal data to facilitate wider data governance. Moreover, data governance obligation extends to any third-party contractors or partners working with an HEI, and will present institutions with much greater legal liability in the event of error.

5. Operating internationally presents increased risk

Lesley Graham, our Higher Education Tax lead, talked about how the global market for Higher Education is increasingly competitive and being impacted by changing global trends. This can bring with it significant risks. Joined by Marie Green, our Global Mobility lead, they went on to talk about how important it is now to ensure universities have the right policies and governance in place for their people working overseas. You can find out more here.

6. Operational costs need to align with strategic goals

Education Consulting lead partner, Cat McCusker said that while a small number of HEIs have maintained strong financial positions, HEFCE’s 2017 report on the financial position of HEIs in 2015/16 noted that 27 HEIs recorded reductions in income.

‘Quick fix’ operational cost reduction initiatives can expose organisations to extra financial risk. She said institutions cannot afford to operate in this way. Instead, a change in emphasis is required to enable more effective control and alignment of costs to strategic priorities and outcomes.

Coming soon...

Over the last few months we have been collaborating with the HEPI on a research programme to help all of us working with, and in, the university sector think about the future, focusing on three areas - internationalisation, the use of new technology; and the role of governance and leadership in strategic planning.

A final summary report will be launched at the HEPI Annual conference in June 2018. Our online newsletter HE Matters will also cover these topics, including the Autumn 2017 edition available now on Internationalisation. To receive a copy of our Spring (technology) and Summer (strategy) editions subscribe here.


Ian Looker | Education Leader
Email | +44 (0)113 288 2019


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