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Reputation, reputation, reputation

One consideration dominates the thinking of university strategic planners in an age of uncertainty.

Ten years ago strategic planning in higher education was a more predictable business. Institutions could rely on an annual income secured through a steady and equitably distributed flow of undergraduates, annually rising fee levels and growth both in the underlying population and in higher education participation. Added to this was a government funding policy based on “equity between institutions” (remember that old principle of the Higher Education Funding Council for England?) and on moderating the impact of new policies. Many universities had considerable and growing reserves, and a buoyant real-estate market meant it was easy to offload buildings for cash in emergencies. And international demand for British higher education was seemingly insatiable, particularly from China.

The world is now rather different. Marketised undergraduate recruitment has led to ever greater disparities in recruitment success between institutions. The undergraduate fee has been frozen for the fourth year in a row and universities are seeing the impact of significant loan repayments on the balance sheet―loans given on the basis of student number forecasts made pre-2012. Institutions now face greater competition from alternative providers, while visa restrictions and the slowdown of economic growth in sending countries have stemmed the flow of international students.

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