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What I really really want

University strategists and analysts pick their policy priorities for 2024

It is feasible that the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, will resist holding a general election until January 2025—the latest possible date—but the likelihood is that it will take place sometime this year. Certainly, political parties will need to finalise their manifestos over the next few months. We asked leading higher education figures for the policy they would most like to see in those manifestos—and one they would not.

Sally Mapstone, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews and president of Universities UK

Improvements in student maintenance support would be my one desired policy outcome for 2024.

Enhanced support, including bringing back maintenance grants in England for those who need them most, would make a real, tangible and immediate difference to thousands of students, particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds. Not only would it provide financial support for students already at university, but those considering their next step could have the confidence to attend, knowing that these are grants rather than loans that have to be repaid. No prospective student should be limited in their choice of future by their financial circumstances.

As for what I would not like to see, everyone in the sector knows the value of international students, from their £41 billion direct economic benefit, to the immeasurable ways they enrich our campuses and communities.

The graduate visa route is a key factor in why many students choose to come to the UK. It provides an opportunity for graduating students to not only stay a little longer in the country to which they have acclimatised but also to access job opportunities.

Any changes to the substance and functionality of the graduate route could be disastrous for UK universities, not to mention the UK’s export earnings. It would hit institutions financially and socially and risk putting us out of step with international competitors.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union

We need an end to the culture war, so educators and students can teach and learn in peace. But all parties must also recognise that the current funding model has failed. This year, recent graduates have been hit with student loan interest rates that are higher than those of many credit cards. We need to stop saddling students with a lifetime of debt, end the competition between institutions that sees management driven to cut costs and staff forced to strike, and move to a sustainable funding model.

Migrant students and university workers have come under sustained attack from successive Tory home secretaries. They have introduced laws that are tearing families apart. UCU dreads to see what cruel, inhumane migration policy the Conservative Party dreams up next.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group

I don’t think there is a single silver bullet for research in 2024, so what I’d really like to see in next year’s party manifestos is an appreciation of the value of investing in fundamental research, supporting universities to translate that research into sustainable economic, health, environmental and cultural impacts, and a recognition that the UK could do even more if R&D were seen as a core thread running through everything from the planning system to public sector reforms and net zero.

For universities, financial resilience will be a key challenge over coming years, so manifestos need to address this. Long-term, stable investment in research to position the UK as a leading nation globally would be ideal. A whole government approach that uses levers like procurement, as well as direct investment, to drive innovation would also help to maximise the impact research-intensive universities can have for businesses, communities and public services like the NHS. It’s something spoken about in the past but never quite achieved.

Immigration reforms that prevent us bringing brilliant students or promising researchers to the UK would be high on the list of things the research sector doesn’t want to see next year.

We recognise government and public concerns over immigration, but a policy overcorrection that undermines the graduate route or hampers our ability to attract talented researchers and technical staff would cause long-term damage to the UK science base. Other countries, rightly, treat international students as temporary migrants in their own net migration statistics and it would be helpful if the UK could follow suit.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

The most urgent policy is tackling student maintenance, given how much less money students have to live on than they had in the past (in real terms), or when compared with, say, Wales. If we want to avoid higher dropout rates, and we want people to get the most out of the university experience, then we need them to be able to live with a half-decent standard of living.

The policy I would hate to see is new student number caps. The number of 18-year-olds is going to continue growing throughout this decade. While there is some evidence of demand for higher education softening, there is no evidence that this is part of a long-term trend. So it’s vital we do not slam the door of higher education in the face of those who could benefit from it, and when the country needs the skills and knowledge that higher education provides.

Anne Marie Graham, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA)

I would like to see a review of the higher education funding model. It is critical that we look at the domestic funding model to avoid putting undue pressure on the sustainability of international student recruitment.

I don’t want to see any changes to the graduate route in terms of its length and flexibility. The graduate route has been an excellent addition to the UK’s post-study work offer, benefiting both international graduates and UK employers, and is an essential complement to the skilled worker route.

Nicola Dandridge, professor of practice in higher education policy at the University of Bristol and former chief executive of the Office for Students

Aside from the urgent need to address university funding, I would like to see a commitment in party manifestos to reversing the decline in modern foreign languages in schools and universities.

For years we have been wringing our hands at the declining numbers but nothing meaningful is ever done. Yet addressing the decline is eminently feasible, primarily requiring coordination and commitment across government, schools and universities. Although other policy initiatives may have more immediate urgency and political salience, the decline in language provision represents a slow-burn, incremental failure that is impoverishing students, and contributing to an inexorable decline in our country’s cultural competences and global standing.

What I would not want to see is any reference to ‘mickey mouse’ courses. It is never clear what is meant by the term, other than being invoked to make a political point at universities’ and students’ expense. Sometimes it seems to be referring to vocational courses co-developed with employers. But those are exactly the courses we need more of, not less.

Nehaal Bajwa, vice-president of Liberation and Equality at the National Union of Students

I would like to see pledges to end tuition fees in higher education, properly fund the education sector and restore maintenance grants. These would alleviate financial burdens on students and foster more meaningful access to higher education, allowing people to focus on learning rather than being forced to work long hours just to afford to live.

Students are the doctors, nurses and public sector workers of tomorrow. They are the engineers and research scientists who could solve the crises we all face as a society; there is a powerful social benefit from properly funding education for all. Reinstating grants and abolishing tuition fees would also create a more inclusive and equitable education system that empowers individuals from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue higher learning, fulfil their potential, and meet the challenges we all desperately need to face together.

Policies that will disappoint me if they appear in manifestos are: anything that deepens the marketisation of higher education, and continued punitive attendance-monitoring, visa-monitoring and other restrictions on international students.

Joe Marshall, chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business

The language of policymakers and government often focuses on ‘enabling’ and ‘incentivising’ industry to succeed. However, financial incentives alone are not enough for the UK to secure meaningful strategic advantage in particular sectors or technologies. Instead, what we need is a more genuine partnership between government and industry to co-create the vision and a suite of interventions to achieve it.

Research and innovation is a global endeavour. Securing association to Horizon Europe was a significant and welcome step back to normality. If the UK is to arrest stagnation and succeed as a knowledge economy, then it must decide where it can benefit from participation with others and where independent action is required. Disruption and reinvention do not always lead to progress, particularly when the practical costs of developing and operationalising alternative solutions are not fully understood at the outset.

Any future policy that destabilises the existing system without a realistic, rigorous assessment of how the policy is to be delivered within existing resource constraints and the improvements it will create must be avoided.

Charlie Ball, head of labour market intelligence, Jisc, the UK digital, data and technology agency

I’d like a recommitment to an industrial strategy—one that acknowledges higher education’s role as a focus for knowledge and expertise, as a key local employer, and as a supplier and trainer to local economies.

It would recognise that higher education providers can and should be supported in delivering adult skills and training, and acknowledge and support their importance in providing high-quality information, advice and guidance. And ‘industry’ should mean more than tech and manufacturing. The UK is an international leader in arts and the creative industries and an industrial strategy that understands that these industries are valuable, worth supporting and that arts degrees are worth doing—and says that out loud—would be particularly welcome.

I would dread any more salary-based metrics as measures of the success of higher education. Salary is a bad metric. It assumes that salaries are flat across the country (they are not), that costs are flat across the country (they are not), and that graduates are mainly interested in maximising their income (they really are not).

It also incentivises institutions to send local talent to jobs away from the areas that need them and that they want to work in and take jobs that will make them worse off than if they stayed local in less expensive areas with slightly lower salaries.