10 Challenges Facing UK Higher Education in 2019

British universities are amongst the best in the world, consistently topping global rankings and leading innovation in teaching and research. 

But, there are substantial obstacles to overcome within the higher education sector in the next year, with many issues centered on the current UK political climate.

In this article, we explore the ten most prominent challenges facing higher education in the UK that can be expected in 2019.

Political Influences Present Global Challenges

Political Influences Present Global Challenges

1. Brexit

No subject currently dominates daily life in the UK more than Brexit. The country is due to leave the European Union (EU) in March 2019, and uncertainty surrounding the circumstances of its departure filters into all sectors, including higher education.

For universities, there are several reasons for concern. The principle of free movement within the European Union has facilitated participation in exchange programs such as ERASMUS. Whether or not British students will be able to participate in these schemes is still not known, nor has it been decided if the UK will remain an ERASMUS destination for students. Academics are concerned about losing the cultural and scholastic benefits of pan-European exchange programs, as are students approaching university age.

There’s also ambiguity over whether European academics will be able to live and work in the UK and continue their valuable contribution to British universities. Furthermore, the uncertainty facing European students might prevent them from applying to pursue any kind of higher education in the UK. This may diminish the cultural richness currently found in British universities and present one of many financial challenges to institutions in the near future. 

2. Declining International Reputation

While further discussion of Brexit may seem over the top, it's potential influence is far-reaching. There are several facts and likely scenarios currently at play, all of which have a detrimental impact on the UK’s standing within the global higher education market.

Take immigration rules as an example. Two years ago, 16% of staff in British universities were from the EU, whilst a further 12% originated from outside of the EU. Individual circumstances will vary, but there is a realistic possibility that thousands of people currently employed in the UK’s higher education sector will leave the country, taking their valuable expertise with them. Furthermore, the issues surrounding research funding are off-putting to academics and other institutions that might otherwise have pursued collaboration.

Current data does provide some cause for alarm. The Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings, published in May 2018, showed that institutions in the UK are experiencing a downward trend in their international standing. Durham University has lost its place within the top 100 global universities, whilst London universities with an enduring presence on the international scene – such as Imperial College London and University College London – have dropped down the table.

THE also compiles World University Rankings – a global list of the best 1,250 institutions – each year. The 2018 rankings showed that the UK had lost its position as the second most-represented country in the world, with Japan taking the silver medal and Britain moving to bronze. Whilst Oxford and Cambridge are still the top two universities, the UK’s total has shifted down to 98, with 2 prestigious institutions falling out of the top 200.

Whether this trend continues remains to be seen, but the challenge for British universities is to take proactive steps toward improving their reputation abroad.

3. Global Competition

As mentioned above, the UK has lost its second-place position in the world rankings, but it’s not only Japan making inroads. Chinese universities have made rapid improvements in their global reputation, while Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have managed to attract students put off by the current political situation in both the UK and the United States. Where the UK higher education sector seems to be in a slump, other countries are thriving.

Some factors – most notably, Brexit – are outside of the direct remit of British universities. The outcome of negotiations with the EU, particularly in terms of the rights of EU academics and students post-Brexit, will have a substantial influence on how the UK recovers its reputation. Universities and colleges need to have backup plans prepared in case of a no-deal Brexit, and beyond 2019, long-term strategies to revive individual institutions and the sector as a whole.

Financial Challenges Are Far-Reaching

Financial Challenges Are Far-Reaching

4. Variable Student Fees

In February, Prime Minister Theresa May proposed a change to the pricing structure of British university courses, which would force institutions to charge less for courses that are cheaper to run and have lower projected graduate earnings.

The response from the higher education sector was almost universally negative. It was argued that this would make Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) degrees more expensive than other subject areas, which in turn discourages disadvantaged students from studying these subjects. 

Attracting young people from poorer backgrounds into STEM courses and careers is already a challenge for universities and industries; this would be exacerbated if scientific degrees suddenly became the most expensive options. 

5. Research Funding Concerns

There are serious concerns within academic institutions regarding access to research funding post-Brexit. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK received approximately £5 billion in EU funding for research, with £500 million per year going directly to universities.

With the date of Britain’s departure from the EU looming, higher education institutions are gravely concerned about how a potentially huge research funding gap will be filled. It was confirmed in July that research projects currently financed by the EU would continue to receive funding until 2020. In the case of a no-deal Brexit, the Treasury has pledged to act as a guarantor.

The real challenge will come once that grace period has expired. Academics currently designing research projects are facing serious uncertainty over who will provide funding moving forward, as well as the strong potential for increased competition. If funding is restricted, this will have substantial, long-term implications for the UK as a research powerhouse.

6. Increased Costs

Higher education institutions need to set aside funds for continued investment in staff, infrastructure, and student facilities in order to remain competitive. As fees steadily increase, students expect a tangible return on their own investment.

This isn’t simply about gaining a degree; students are also looking for practical career advice, academic mentoring, and personal support throughout their time at university or college. Students have effectively become savvier customers who aren’t afraid to look elsewhere if an academic institution isn’t up to scratch.

Of course, meeting these expectations can require substantial increases in funding. Students would argue that their fees should plug this gap, but universities are finding that the costs associated with teaching, student support, non-academic staff, and facilities management are rapidly increasing. The risk of long-term financial difficulty is of serious concern to heads of higher education institutions.

7. Providing Value for Money

Repeated increases in student fees have forced students to consider whether it’s worthwhile to attend university. Those who do are looking to extract as much value as possible out of their studies. This means that universities must demonstrate their ability to provide facilities and technology that enriches every student. Keeping pace with student expectations is likely to be a costly endeavor, and institutions must factor this in during long-term financial planning.

Institutions May Struggle Internally Too

Institutions May Struggle Internally Too

8. Recruiting the Right People

Good universities depend on their staff to deliver high-quality education and student support. The challenge of recruitment post-Brexit is well-known within the sector, and innovative approaches to recruiting and retaining talent are required to overcome any significant gaps.

Immigration rules for EU citizens are likely to change; universities must be prepared to support applicable staff, although the specifics of that support will not be known until the terms of Brexit are agreed. Institutions may be required to sponsor new or existing staff if they are not UK citizens, but they should already be well versed in this process for non-EU citizens.

9. Student Welfare

The wellbeing of students in higher education has been under the spotlight recently. Mental illness, suicide, substance abuse, and sexual harassment are some of the most serious issues affecting students, and universities are tasked with providing support both inside and outside of the classroom.

The ability of universities to protect the wellbeing of their students depends on the funding they have to invest in support staff and dedicated facilities. The challenge of finding this money – particularly in view of other pressing financial concerns – will be significant.

10. Protecting Free Speech

The issue of free speech and academic debate within universities has received considerable attention in recent years. Institutions have faced both criticism and praise over ‘non-platforming’ of controversial speakers. 

Some argue that giving a platform to extreme opinions is potentially harmful, while on the other side of the debate, there are concerns about restrictions on free speech and the inability of modern students to constructively counter views they don’t agree with.

Even between academics, high-profile debates have resulted in demands for those holding contrasting views to be reprimanded or even removed from their teaching positions. Universities have always had to find an equilibrium, but they are under more pressure than ever before to provide a balanced solution to this contentious issue.

Final Thoughts

2019 is likely to be an intensely challenging year for higher education in the UK. 

Institutions will need to develop strategies to overcome potential hurdles, although the outcome of Brexit negotiations will be a key factor. The first quarter of 2019 will, therefore, prove pivotal in shaping where to go from there.

Clodagh O'Brien
Senior Content Specialist