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Higher education in 2016

23 December 2015
Julie Tam

Julie Tam

Assistant Director of Policy
Universities UK
Graduation ceremony


As we bid farewell to 2015, we look ahead to some of the big issues that will be affecting higher education in 2016.

The end of 2015 saw some significant announcements relating to higher education; in particular, the trilogy of the government’s green paper on higher education in England, the spending review announcement and the Nurse review of research councils. The implications of all three announcements will be felt and dealt with in 2016.

So, in no particular order, here are five things that will have an impact upon universities in 2016:

  1. The Green Paper and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)

The Higher Education Green Paper 'Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice' – signified some major shifts for universities.

In particular, the paper outlined proposals for a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in England, intended to give prospective students more information about the teaching they will receive on courses, and incentivise excellent teaching. The paper also proposed that a new lead regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), be established as an arms-length public body.

A consultation on the proposals in the green paper is open and will end on 15 January 2016. Universities UK will be considering how funding and regulatory powers are integrated, the future of the sector bodies and their relationship to government, and how the green paper protects the autonomy of our world-class university sector.

  1. Review of social mobility in higher education

With the words ‘social mobility’ included in the title of the green paper, it signalled clearly that this is a priority area for the government. The paper reiterated the prime minister’s previously announced goals on social mobility, which include: a doubling of the number of socially disadvantaged students entering higher education between 2009 and 2020 (from 13.6% to 27.2%); and increasing the number of black and minority ethnic (BME) young people attending university by 20% by 2020 (equivalent to 19,000 extra students).

Universities have made considerable progress in this area in recent years. The sector recognises, however, there is more to do. As announced in the green paper, Universities UK has been asked to establish and lead a Social Mobility Advisory Group to build on this progress and identify best practice. The group is currently being established and its membership and terms of reference will be announced in the new year. The group will produce a final report and recommendations in summer 2016.

  1. The Spending Review and changes to student funding

The government’s eagerly anticipated Spending Review included some significant announcements relating to universities. Most significantly, of course, was the extent to which the overall higher education budget would be cut. The general consensus was that higher education did not fare too badly. It was announced that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), would see a 17% cut in real terms by 2019–20, less than the 25% or even 40% cuts feared.

The Chancellor’s announcement also included some major changes for student funding in England. In particular, it announced the introduction of maintenance loans for part-time students and widening the eligibility criteria for tuition loans for students wishing to do a second degree in STEM subjects. The government also confirmed its intention to introduce a system of postgraduate Masters loans.

We do not yet know the full implications of the Spending review for the overall amount of funding for higher education. We may not get to find this out until BIS’s grant letter to The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which we expect in early 2016.

  1. Review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

It was announced this month that Lord Stern will chair a review into the research excellence framework (REF). Lord Stern – president of the British Academy and the well-known author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change – will look at the way £1.6 billion is allocated to university research departments each year according to quality assessments by expert panels. A central part of the review will be to explore ways in which a simpler, lighter-touch, system for the REF might be developed. The review is set to report in the summer of 2016.

  1. Possible changes to UK immigration policy

Universities UK welcomed the UK government’s recent commitment to international students announced in the Spending Review.

As the Chancellor George Osborne suggested recently, one step the government could take to boost the UK’s standing would be to remove international students from the government’s net migration target. The chancellor’s call has been supported by Sajid Javid, business secretary, and Philip Hammond, foreign secretary. They have warned that any attempt to restrict students from coming to the UK would be damaging to the economy and to Britain’s standing in the world.

The UK has the potential to be one of the world’s fastest growing destinations for international students building on its current status as the second most popular destination for international students (after the US). We hope that 2016 will be the year we get an announcement from government on this area.

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