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Higher Education Bill could cause massive disruption

Higher Education Bill could cause massive disruption
5 min read

Speaking ahead of the forthcoming Higher Education and Research Bill, Shadow Minister for Higher Education Gordon Marsden laid out the problems it could cause. 

The Government’s forthcoming Higher Education and Research Bill was problematic to begin with, but in the wake of the Brexit referendum result, it is even more so now. It is a bill which places immense faith in the magic of the market, and central to its proposals, is a concentration on creating a ‘brave new world’ of what the Government are calling HE ‘Challenger Institutions’ – largely private and for profit.

As they said in Yes Minister, the Government are being remarkably ‘bold’ putting all their eggs in the challenger basket, especially with the knock-effects on existing HE institutions now. Existing concerns have been amplified by dystopian downturns in the wake of funding and stability uncertainties after the Brexit vote. It’s hardly the time for embarking on three years of ‘creative chaos’ meddling with what the Bill calls the ‘architecture’ of quality assurance when the sector now is grappling with the immediate consequences, both direct and indirect, of Brexit.

There are more than 125,000 EU Students at UK Universities, 6.4% of the entire student body last year. Non-UK EU nationals make up 11.6% of all students at Masters Level.  What is to happen to their continued eligibility to study here or access student loans? With nothing guaranteed the impact this has on Universities finances could be very serious if they are unable to meet their student targets or IF courses are forced to close.

Michael Arthur, president of University College London, has already warned it could be much harder to attract EU students to a UK perceived as “rather insular and inward-looking”. If this view prevails, where does that leave the “10% increase in domestic and EU students by 2019/20”, the Government  is relying on in its White Paper?

As serious is the reputational damage to universities as a UK international brand. The Government’s White Paper was already blasé about potential knock-on effects for "UK PLC" from its sweeping changes. HE providers across England and the devolved nations of Britain are internationally competitive because they’re seen as part of a tried and trusted UK brand. There needs to be a UK-wide strategy in place to safeguard it.

The White Paper also argues new Challenger Institutions, many private sector and for profit, are seen as critical for expanding and satisfying the demand for Higher Education places. It says, but with very little evidence base, they ‘will serve the national economy by enabling us to continue to capture our share of international students who increasingly demand access to top quality education.” But at a time when our existing HE institution brands already risk losing tens of thousands of EU students, Government obsession with untried and untested providers could undermine rather than reward the sector. It might only take one fiasco or scandal to damage HE-UK internationally.

Current Conservative policies of including all students in immigration targets won’t help either. Remember our new Prime Minister Theresa May said as Home Secretary “universities should now develop sustainable funding models not so dependent on international students”. That leaves us now with the number of new non-European Union undergraduate and postgraduate entrants to English higher education institutions falling by 1.7 per cent in 2015-16. How much steeper will it given the uncertainties of Brexit?

At present, UK Universities receive 10% (just over a billion pounds a year) of their research funding from the EU. The Times Higher Education says Eighteen UK institutions face losing more than half their research funding as a result of the decision to leave the European Union. This includes both some of our newer universities as well as long-established Universities in the Russell Group, with their world-class research partnerships across Europe coming under threat, with knock-on effects outside Europe.

Many key HE programmes on which both FE Colleges and Modern Universities rely could be scrapped if up to £725 million of EU money that is currently going to LEPs is lost, drying up the programmes at sub-regional level, which produce jobs and skills for them and their communities, and on which hundreds of courses and staff depend.

Finally what is to happen to the future careers of some of our brightest UK students and our future workforce? During the 2013-14 academic year, there were 15,600 UK students, on the EU funded Erasmus programme, getting valuable qualifications in another European country. Will our access to such programmes disappear under Brexit? Will the benefits to our economy of our young people being able to freely study abroad in 27 other countries be lost?

This isn’t just about economic losses but about the potential blighting of a whole generation – brought home to me by an email the weekend after the Brexit vote, from a young man in Blackpool who had just completed a year of his university course in Munich thanks to the EU Erasmus programme. He said ‘I’m deeply concerned about our path forward as a nation.’

The Government’s already admitted it has few immediate answers to these new post-Brexit threats to our world-class HE system. Yet it’s merrily pressing on with a Bill introducing major changes that could cause further massive disruption to it. No wonder people are saying if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Gordon Marsden is the Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills, and the Member of Parliament for Blackpool South.




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