The UK is proudly home to some of the world’s most prestigious universities. The most recent Times Higher Education rankings put four British universities in the global top 15. Many more recognised as world leaders in their fields of research and centres of learning excellence.
Qualifications from UK-based institutions are highly-prized by both students and employers alike. With a reputation for some of the best teaching and facilities in the world, it’s no surprise that almost half a million international students choose to study here each year. In addition, there are almost two million home-grown higher education students.
But this is not a time to be complacent. The dynamics of the higher education market have changed beyond recognition over recent decades – indeed the sector has only been considered a ‘market’ since the 1980s.
Add into the mix the ongoing fallout of Brexit, the deep and uncertain impact of coronavirus, changing student demographics, challenging industrial relations between universities and staff... Higher education in the UK has a lot to overcome.
Worth almost £40bn, higher education is a market that makes a significant contribution to the UK economy. Cuts in public funding for higher education providers over several decades mean the bulk of that £40bn now comes from tuition fees. The sector is now a commercialised, competitive marketplace. Universities who are unable to compete will not be able to fund themselves.
Higher education is a huge investment for most young people. With annual fees in the UK now exceeding £9,000, the average graduate leaves university with debts exceeding £50,000. It means that today’s prospective students have a different perspective on their relationship with higher education institutions. Increasingly, they see themselves as customers.
Like almost every other sector, higher education halted at the start of the coronavirus outbreak. For universities, it’s likely to take longer to return to any kind of normality than other businesses. With international travel disruption set to last for months and possibly years to come, the impact on institutions who rely so heavily on international mobility and staff and students from abroad could be grave.
While universities weren’t alone in being caught off-guard, the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the fact that many organisations have been failing to deliver effective student communications. Many of them lack the infrastructure they need to respond quickly and decisively in times of crisis. At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, universities faced stiff criticism for failing to communicate clearly with their students. They were accused of giving mixed messages and of taking too long to act. International students had the added vulnerability of having difficulty getting home during the initial weeks of the outbreak, and received little support from their universities.
Certainly, the COVID-19 outbreak was unprecedented. But major organisations like universities that have a duty of care to millions of young people, need to be ready to support their student bodies in
While previous generations may not have given much thought to whether a degree was a good return on investment, it’s a priority for Generation Z. They’re different from previous generations in other ways, too. They have grown up in a fast-moving world where social media and mobile technology are the norm. Almost anything they want has always been available instantly, at the click of a button.
Today’s students are digitally savvy, entrepreneurial, ambitious and have high expectations of any organisation – public, private or otherwise. They’re not just looking for a degree; they’re looking for an all-round ‘experience’.
As if meeting the massive expectations of Gen Z wasn’t challenging enough, universities are doing it against a backdrop of increasing competition, both within the UK and abroad.
With fees now at least half of universities’ income, the drive to attract more students is relentless. At the same time, an increasing number of bodies now have the power to award degrees. It’s been more than 25 years since ‘polytechnics’ became universities, and subsequent changes have further increased the number of institutions legally entitled to call themselves a university. The net result is that from fewer than 50 universities in the 1980s, there are now more than 160 higher education
institutions in the UK.
There has been a similar explosion in the numbers of universities around the world. The Times Higher Education world university rankings now include 1,400 universities, with thousands more that don’t make the cut.
Some parts of the world – Asia most notably – have seen significant growth in higher education institutions. They are increasingly rivalling the best the UK has to offer. Japan now has more universities in the top global rankings than the UK, and China isn’t far behind. With the bulk of
international students in the UK coming from Asian countries – more than 100,000 from China alone – global competition is a real risk to higher education in the UK.
An increasingly global outlook coupled with the free movement historically afforded by the EU means that not only have international students historically chosen the UK, but British students have also started to look further afield for their own higher education. Tuition fees can be significantly cheaper in other countries and many courses are now taught in English, which all add to the appeal. Prospective students have more choice than ever before – which for universities means more competition than ever before.
The challenge for universities isn’t just coming from outside. Their own staff are expressing rising dissatisfaction and industrial relations hit an all-time low in early 2020 with widespread strikes.
Concerns about pay, pensions and working conditions saw as many as 50,000 staff at more than 70 institutions take to the picket line. While students were in the main supportive of the action being taken, the rise of student customers meant many have pushed for compensation for lost learning.
The dispute is set against a backdrop of rising pay for very senior university staff - the average vice-chancellor enjoys a £350,000 salary. Intense media coverage of the issue and high-profile political criticism of universities all add to an erosion of trust and reputational damage facing UK universities.
There’s no doubt that universities are now big business, turning over billions each year and employing tens of thousands of people. But it’s an increasingly difficult marketplace – more competition coupled with fewer and more challenging customers make it almost inevitable that some of the UK’s higher education institutions won’t survive.
Relying on the historic reputation of Britain’s higher education sector is no longer enough. The challenge facing universities who don’t just want to survive, but to build and grow is to demonstrate that in 2020 they are still world-class, are cutting-edge – and are worth a £50,000 investment.
They need to offer the best teaching, facilities, research, opportunities and all-round ‘student experience’ – and they need to tell the world that’s what they have to offer.