The Future of UK Higher Education

Why the student experience matters more than ever.

January 14, 2016
Thoughts on the Future of UK Higher Education

When I moved to the UK I utilized social media to listen, learn, and engage with as many higher education practitioners, institutions, organizations, and news outlets as I possibly could.

Higher education in the United States shares as many similarities as it does differences with "HE" in the United Kingdom. Fortunately, there are a lot of people writing, thinking, sharing, and posting about all things related to UK higher education. If you're willing to be a student of the system, you can learn a lot in a fairly short amount of time. I recommend following Wonkhe for UK HE policy news and Times Higher Education for broad-based news about the sector.

Similar to my reflection piece (or riff) on Kevin Kruger's thoughts/predictions for US higher education in 2016, I've decided to build some thoughts of my own off of a post from Chris Husbands - the new Vice Chancellor for Sheffield Hallam University.

In his post "On being new," Husbands writes about his experience as a new VC (for most UK Higher Educations Institutions - HEIs, the VC is the chief executive) and the challenges/opportunities facing UK universities in 2016:

They include the continuing constraints on public funding, the far more competitive environment nationally and globally, the increased, and increasing, expectations of students, and the transformative impact of technology on teaching, learning and flows of information. In that context, issues of student experience, employability, innovation and impact are of paramount importance, and strongly cohesive institutions are likely to be the most effective at inventive responses to challenge.

Funding -> Debt - While the UK has one of the finest systems of higher education in the world, it isn't cheap. Most students pay £9,000* ($12,972) per year to go to university (*unless you're in Scotland or Northern Ireland). Ironically, in 2016 most of the decisions on funding/cost of attendance are being made by individuals who did not have to pay anything for their undergraduate courses (degrees). While student debt in the UK is nowhere near as massive as it is in the US, expect UK students to shoulder an increased financial burden in the near future.

A new government proposal ("Green Paper") was released in late 2015 that would allow for tuition increases depending on a proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The review/consultation period for the paper - Higher Education: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility, and Student Choice - closes on January 15th. While some of the Green Paper is forward-thinking in terms of student success, access, and innovation, it is interesting to see how the proposal might just be an excuse to increase the financial burden that student's face...even if teaching improves as a result.

Expectations -> Student Experience - The student experience matters. In the past, it would seem that UK universities didn't really have to be concerned with the student experience. There is a survey in the UK called the National Student Survey (NSS) that measures student satisfaction, but it seems to have more of an impact on rankings and "reactive problem solving." Compared to US higher education where retention, persistence, and success are of paramount importance, UK higher education has not had as much of a focus on student development, student engagement, and student experience.

However, now that enrollment caps have been lifted (UK HEIs can enroll as many students per year as they can), tuition increases are on the horizon, and universities are getting more competitive, the student experience becomes a critical component to the overall success of an institution.

Competition -> Strategic Communications and Technology - UK HEIs have never had to be as competitive as they will be in 2016 and beyond. Look for an increase in intentional efforts to be more strategic, tactical, and student-focused when it comes to communications throughout the student journey.

Additionally, there will be significant investment in student success technologies for academic advisors as well as VLE shake-ups and innovative digital textbook offerings.

Employability -> Career Development - Students attend university as a stepping stone to career opportunities. Throughout a student's university experience, they will ideally develop enhanced critical thinking abilities, knowledge of a specialized subject, and a set of skills/fluencies that will make them better equipped for career success. While "employability" as a reason for higher education participation may not sit well with some people, I think it's important to note that most people with a career today have their university experience to thank as one of the primary reasons for their employment. In other words, employability is an important facet of the higher education experience.

Technology -> Digital Literacy - In 2016 (and beyond), getting digital is required. Digital literacy/capability is something that is a never-ending journey. Thankfully, here in the UK, Jisc leads the way when it comes to providing thought-leadership, resources, and direction for all things related to higher education and digital literacy/capability.

Lastly, look for continued conversations on the use of social media for teaching, learning, leadership, and employability. Running in tandem with the student experience, social media usage will increase/expand as a way to enhance, engage, and build community.

What would you add to this list of challenges/opportunities facing UK universities in 2016?


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