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As election looms, expect battles and hope for breakthroughs

University funding and international openness top the coming year’s policy priorities, says Molly Morgan Jones

The beginning of an academic year is charged with anticipation—a time for fresh starts and new ambitions. The same is true for the government, which returns from recess to face many of the issues it left at the start of the summer. 

Central to officials’ work is a pivotal question: will they secure a deal with the EU to associate to its Horizon Europe R&D programme? The answer remains uncertain. But it is worth turning our attention to the many other pressing policy challenges facing universities and explore some potential solutions.

Higher education institutions are coming under increasingly severe financial pressure. While the sector’s total income exceeded £40 billion in 2020-21, the sustainability of universities is growing precarious. 

In 2012, tuition fees replaced government grants as the main support for teaching. Yet the £9,250 fee introduced in 2017 has a real-terms value of £6,600 in 2023. This has created a paradox: fees fail to cover the cost of many courses, yet many students find them too high.

The perception that getting a degree is expensive has intensified pressure from the government to deliver high-quality teaching and positive course outcomes. Everyone agrees students should receive a quality education and have opportunities for fulfilling careers. However, in an uncertain economy, proposing to cut courses, cap student numbers and judge outcomes using fixed metrics is not the way to balance choice with cost. 

As the next general election approaches, higher education is likely to become a political battleground. At the British Academy, we are clear that the solution to concerns about individual outcomes is to provide more educational options and encourage interdisciplinarity—not create new obstacles and pit subjects against each other.

United front

More broadly, higher education should present a united front in advocating for the importance of education and research, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty. Amid what promises to be a contentious campaign, the sector must articulate its invaluable role in fostering innovation and ensuring global competitiveness, urging a commitment to safeguard the health of vital institutions.

The academy’s reports exploring the skills of graduates in the Shape disciplines (social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy) show that a robust and adaptable economy requires a balance of skills and approaches. Our Connected Knowledge campaign celebrates the impact of disciplines, subjects and sectors coming together to tackle some of the greatest issues of our times, including climate change, artificial intelligence and an ageing population. This can only continue if we recognise that higher education is much more than just a path to a high salary.

Meanwhile, plans to raise visa fees, aiming to generate more than a billion pounds in revenue, have been met with scepticism in higher education and research. 

The cost, complexity and experience of the UK’s immigration system are already major impediments to the government’s ambition to foster world-leading research and innovation, while growing the research workforce. With UK visa costs already prohibitively high, many researchers will question whether this is where they wish to build their careers. 

For the UK to boost international research collaborations, its immigration system must stop reducing such opportunities. Like association to Horizon, this is ultimately a question of how open we are to the best researchers, regardless of their discipline or where they come from. 

Fostering such a positive, inclusive culture is a central tenet of research assessment. Although the next Research Excellence Framework, with its increased weighting on people, culture and environment, is still five years away, universities are already preparing, while Research England consults on the updated framework.

Hopes for progress

Inequalities in the academic labour market are well documented and the academy has been clear in its support for change, including the New Deal for postgraduate researchers and in establishing our Early Career Researcher Network. A focus on positive research cultures must be sensitive to early career researchers already struggling in a precarious environment.

As we hope for UK-EU negotiations to conclude with association to Horizon Europe, the academy will continue making the case for an open and accessible immigration system, and a research culture that facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration, while considering creative solutions to higher education funding that balance accessibility with sustainability. 

For now, let us enjoy the hope of a new year and enter it prepared to take up these challenges. 

Molly Morgan Jones is director of policy at the British Academy

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight