31 January 2019

Uncertainties ahead, but are there opportunities?

What will 2019 bring?  It is a question we tend to ask at the beginning of every year, but this year it all feels rather different.  This is hardly surprising since we are in the throes of the greatest constitutional crisis that any of us can remember or any historian can recall.  The uncertainty over the deal with Europe has reached every corner of the economy, not least higher education which has developed such a deep association with the EU and whose workforce includes very large numbers of EU citizens of uncertain status.

However, for universities and colleges there are added complications ahead.  The forthcoming review of student finance led by Philip Augar, heavily leaked in the last couple of months, was always potentially contentious because it is predicated on political assurances that tuition fees would be reduced for most subjects but with no guarantee that the shortfall would be met in full by the Treasury. Moreover, the announcement in December by the Office for National Statistics that unpaid student loans should be regarded as part of the National Debt, adding a potential £12 billion to the deficit, has increased the likelihood that the total number of students could be limited, possibly by restricting student loans to those who have gained more than 3-Ds at A Level.

This double-whammy could have huge consequences for some universities especially if the bulk of their provision is in the humanities, social sciences and creative arts which are most likely to see the greatest reduction in fees.  These are often the very universities with the largest proportion of students entering with low qualifications.  One estimate suggests that some universities would not only lose up to a third of their students but also see huge reductions in their income for the remainder.  It is scant comfort that other universities will gain because of their more extensive provision in STEM subjects.

Of course, things are never that simple.  Just as there are those who believe that someone will ride over the horizon to prevent a no-deal Brexit, there are many who cannot believe the Government would allow universities in England to fail.  Given that many universities are the main employers, directly and indirectly, in their communities, the consequences for local economies could be dire.  We are assured that no university has ever failed completely.  Yet mergers and realignments have become commonplace in the further education sector; why should universities be any different?

For those engaged in executive search, these uncertainties are unhelpful, to say the least.  On the other hand, education will always be needed, however it is delivered. We are already seeing growing interest in alternative routes to higher qualifications and the number undertaking degree apprenticeships, for example, may well increase  if there are constraints on enrolment to standard degrees or a shift in student choice and aspiration.  Reductions in the workforce in one part of the sector may well be balanced by increases elsewhere; it’s just that the requisite qualifications and experience will be different.  Adjusting to a new landscape will require adaptability in executive search just as much as responsiveness by university senior managers and governors.   Either way, 2019 may well prove to be a seminal moment in the history of higher education but there will always be a demand for high quality and responsive executive search.

by Deian Hopkin