The Challenges Facing UK Higher Education


The largest professional services network in the world has identified seven key problems the UK’s education sector will have to confront if it is to remain a global education giant.

Deloitte’s Making the Grade report is the result of four years of client-based discussions and in-depth experience projects to uncover the fundamental flaws in the UK’s education sector. The report comes four years after the previous study which was published in 2011.

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The prestigious, research-lead universities are integral to the UK’s revival of sustainable economic growth. Despite many other sectors battling through austerity, the education sector is consistently in demand, boosting the UK economy by more than £30 billion every year. But in an ever-changing globalised world, there are things that need to change if UK universities are to remain in this esteemed position.

Universities have adapted their channels of revenue in accordance to reforms in education funding; this has resulted in innovative thinking as the institutions decide how best to use their budget. Rising fees mean that student expectations have also continued to rise, and such drastic shifts have inevitably led to the ‘student’ becoming the ‘customer’.

Via UniversitiesUK.

As the UK’s technology and infrastructure expenditure increases, so too does the influence and reputation of its international competitors. The question is; how is the UK’s education sector to incorporate a globalised vision with its unique, individualised procedures?

Operating in a Global Market

The UK’s education sector resides in a global network of institutions all fighting to win the best students, scholars and staff from around the world. With developed and developing nations progressively prioritising research and HE as they strive towards highly-skilled workforces, increased socio-economic mobility and international competitiveness, there is a danger that the UK could be left behind. The UK already produces fewer research papers than the USA and China, while research deriving from non-G8 nations continues to grow. The UK’s share of world publications has fallen since 1999, and in 2008 they dramatically fell to less than 8%.

In 2012-13, international student fees contributed £3billion to the UK economy. It is essential for an institution to excel in the global market if it is to be successful. It is in the institutions’ best interest to entice students from overseas for the talent and money they bring, but also because they present domestic students with a modern, global perspective that gives them a definite edge in the competitive jobs market. Universities in the UK need to incorporate this global perspective into their current strategies in order to uphold and advance their global reputation.

Increasing Costs and Shifting Funding

Recent changes to University funding strategies mean that students now take on a mammoth financial burden for embarking on their studies. Staff teaching and student learning costs continue to rise rapidly, and there is now a dire need for institutions to invest in infrastructure, career support and higher quality teaching to attract the most dedicated students.

There is evidence of drastic financial pressure across the teaching and research activity of Russell Group Universities. With such intense pressure on teaching and more and more challenges arising from an increasingly digitalised society, these institutions need to invest in their equipment, staff and facilities if they are to uphold their world-class reputation.

The report states that each institution has its own mix of subjects as well as its own cost structure, so each must remould its operating model to best direct its spending, attract revenue and reduce its costs.

Rising Student Expectations

The modern-day student pays more for their tuition and in turn expects a more fruitful return investment, whether that be through the quality of teaching, facilities or increased employability. According to Deloitte, only four out of ten of 2015 graduates felt they had received appropriate value for money, a shocking response from the first student cohort to pay £9,000 a year for their studies.

University strategies need to become more flexible, and the student voice needs to be heard for UK institutions to stay top in the competitive market. Decisions need to be made so they can attract the most desirable students and processes set up to optimise these routes; this will ensure they have the talent and innovation required to overcome the UK’s innate cultural conservatism.

A Demand and Need for New Technologies

Deloitte claims that since 2011, the response to new technologies has been positive, with digital spending continuing to rise with the opportunity these technologies present.

However, it is the back office of these Universities that need attention, as there is growing reluctance to incorporate technology into administration and student support. A strong message from IT directors was that digital capability is an issue for all staff groups, not just teachers, and improving the digital skills of everyone is essential for deriving efficiencies and value for money from their technology investments. Integrated, streamlined IT systems will ensure a slick and much more cost-effective administrative process.

Linking Estates, Strategy and the Student

From canteens to accommodation, lecture rooms to theatres, laboratories to libraries, buildings are essential to the future of universities. Infrastructure investment has surged in recent years due to the rise in student expectations and demands, and now these institutions must ensure that their facilities stay in line with these growing expectations.

Changing ways of learning mean demands are being made of space. For example, Deloitte says there has been a shift from large lecture theatres built for one-way learning to more inclusive and collaborative work environments. The same can be said for libraries, which are evolving from independent work stations into communal group-work spaces. These changes have driven significant investment in new premises so the institutions reflect student demands, but HE institutions are diverse organisations and must cater to the varying needs of all their academic departments. Deloitte says that in order for the buildings to best serve the University, it is crucial that the thinking behind them reflects the institution’s overall vision.

Attracting and Retaining the Best Talent

It’s incredibly important for Universities to have the best people behind the scenes as well as in front of their students, for their very reputation is reliant upon the teachers and researchers within them. University offerings are built around the staff, and high quality teaching results in higher quality research. It’s essential that the staff on University books are those that both bring and encourage success, as well as rigour and innovative thinking to the institution itself, but also to its aims and priorities.

The report advises Universities to align recruitment with their corporate strategies, and that they shouldn’t be reluctant to hire management staff from within the corporate world. They should only hire staff best suited to the university’s particular needs and provide individual negotiations on pay for specific members of staff.

A shift to more flexibility with pay could present leadership with certain challenges, but it could also serve as an effective tool for recruiting. These measures not only ensure that only the best are recruited, but that they remain the best.

Making Research Sustainable

Since the previous 2011 study, research funding has become a lot more difficult to access. Availability has moved away from block grants- it is now spread more thinly, leaving it open to intense competition.

As the primary source of income for UK universities shifts away from the country’s government, universities should strive to earn income outside of their government budget through working with partners and organisations to diversify the money at the base of their research.

Research is core to the work of Universities. Whether it’s Kingston’s digital imaging system for sporting events, the University of Hertfordshire’s child-robot that helps autistic children, or Cardiff Metropolitan making surgical procedures safer and less intrusive, research enriches society and benefits each and every one of us throughout our daily lives; it is certainly not a factor of Higher Education that the UK, or any other country, can afford to lose.

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