2017 – Calming Waters or a Perfect Storm?

If 2016 taught us anything, it was that expectations do not always follow the predictable path. What had been built up as our ’norm’, over decades of lived experience, can be shattered in months – if not days. Vikki Goddard, Chief Operating Officer at Salford University, looks ahead to 2017 and predicts some turbulent times for universities, with a few brighter spells.

2016 produced turbulence in the higher education sector, but the storm clouds started to form on the horizon in 2015 following the unexpected Conservative election victory, which led to the development of government policy that set to ‘shake up’ the sector and change the market dynamics.

The subsequent Brexit vote in June 2016, followed by the substantial changes to the make-up of the government and shifts in policy (international students being one of the more de-stabilising) created an increased sense of great uncertainty within the economy generally as well as the sector.

So as we enter 2017, can we expect a calming of the waters or stormier seas ahead?

Overall, Brexit has not had the cataclysmic effect on the economy some predicted – but there are underlying currents of a weakening of some key economic pillars. Sectors will be impacted differently and at different stages – HE was unfortunate in that we are already feeling the economic pressures.

Whether it be with research and structural funds, EU student recruitment, the ability to recruit staff or the wider impact on international recruitment markets – universities are already weathering the storm, in a context where fees have been static in cash terms since 2011. 2017 will provide a key test for how real and meaningful the government’s pledge to replace EU funding in the sector will be. If it proves to be a comprehensive like for like, or thereabouts, this will calm many waters. If not, a significant part of the research community will be looking at its long term financial sustainability with serious concern.

Without being overly ‘glass half empty’ the current government thinking on UKVI regulations could, to continue the weather metaphor, be the perfect storm for many institutions.

Thankfully there appears to be rapid backward rowing on plans to link tier 4 licenses to TEF results, but talk of lower and lower visa refusal thresholds and modelling significant reductions in numbers could seriously undermine the financial model of some institutions, with a knock on effect as those institutions look to shore up their position with UK students.

However, all is not dark and gloomy. The TEF, with the HE Bill alongside it, for all their quirks and faults, does bring a fee increase which should help calm waters in institutions that take part.

A further ingredient in the already complex mix is the impact challenger institutions will have, especially in ‘cheap to teach’ subjects; how the quality regulatory regime eventually emerges from the government process of approving and amending the bill will be of great importance.

In the not-too-distant future, we may start to see the impact on international recruitment of putting ‘bronze’ and ‘silver’ labels on institutions that by any other world ranking would be regarded as excellent (gold standard, anyone?). Combined with Brexit and the immigration policy changes, could this further add to the cold front ahead?

On a final note, March’s budget and the newly-published Industrial Strategy may also provide some respite for the sector, together with the announcement in the last Autumn statement of £2 billion investment in R&D. The welcome indication that austerity is to become austerity-lite, and that there will be investment in industrial strategy, skills and science may also provide some blue waters ahead.

So, as we look to 2017, there is no doubt there are storms forecast. As leaders of universities it’s our responsibility to look at our own ships – to assess how we best weather the storms and and build strategies to navigate the seas to calmer waters.