Amid UK crisis, graduate outcomes data even more critical

We’ve all had those days where we start off firing on all cylinders, but run out of steam by mid-morning and find events passing us by.

Failing to make hay while the sun shines, as suggested in our University World News article of September 2021, means United Kingdom higher education is in increasing danger of enduring life under a cloud with no silver lining. Collective myopia compounded by UK government chaos has taken it from a virtuous circle to a doom loop in short order.

A missed opportunity

Rather than self-congratulatory high-fives for hitting the unambitious inbound international student target of 600,000 before the 2030 deadline, the UK should have taken the opportunity to build on its “first opener” advantage. With the rest of the world's borders still closed there was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to define its future by establishing itself as the “graduate outcomes destination” for international students.

Relying on post-study work alone was never a defensible advantage and the determination of both Australia and Canada to extend post-study work rights and paths to immigration has demonstrated the short-sightedness of the early celebrations.

Those believing that post-study work rights are a route to the top, rather than a race to the bottom, also need to consider the politics of a post-Brexit Britain where taking back control of the borders was a prevalent theme.

Relentless lobbying from the higher education sector was successful in reintroducing post-study work rights, but the surge of students with dependants makes the policy an easy target for populist politicians looking to make a name for themselves. It was entirely predictable that a growth in postgraduate students was likely to increase dependants, but the higher education post-study work visa lobby seems to have neglected to prepare politicians for the consequences.

The aggressive anti-immigration tone of Suella Braverman, home secretary until this week, was based around the mission and mantra “to control our borders”.

It’s unclear what the upshot of this will be for international students applying for dependant visas, and in the wake of Liz Truss’ resignation on Thursday 20 October, it is difficult to see any incoming prime minister wanting to upset the right wing of the party too much by challenging populist views ahead of a general election just over two years away.

No near-term return of European students

The UK’s woes are further compounded by increasing evidence that there is unlikely to be a near-term return of European students. Undergraduate applications at the 30 June 2022 UCAS deadline were down 18% year-on-year, but 53% down since 2020.

Over the two years, the number of accepted applicants 28 days after the Joint Council for Qualifications results day was down 63%. This might suggest that the overall quality has declined or that they are getting very choosy about which offers to take.

It is easy to make the simple claim that EU students are not applying or enrolling because they must now pay the same fees as their non-EU peers. To leave it at that means the sector is failing to engage with providing value for money and employment prospects, even though these factors drive more student decisions than pictures of historic buildings, league tables or famous honorary graduates.

The underlying issue is that, by failing to collect robust, representative data to map international graduate outcomes, the UK is poorly placed to evidence the return on investment a degree provides.

Those seeking solace that recent falls in the value of the pound will be helpful in making the UK better value may also find this a short-lived respite because the government seems likely to welcome a stronger currency to ease financial and inflationary pressure.

The governor of the Bank of England met the incoming chancellor of the exchequer and announced: “I can tell you that there was a very clear and immediate meeting of minds between us about the importance of fiscal sustainability and the importance of taking measures to do that.”

Put that together with the chancellor saying: “… we’re going to have to be asking for sacrifices from everyone to get through a very difficult period”, and there is no reason to think the needs of higher education will feature very heavily as a special case.

Cuts on the horizon

Further signs of the disregard for the plight of higher education are not hard to find, but the delay of three months in appointing a new science minister just piled on the agony after five changes of Secretary of State in two years.

Speaking in The Observer newspaper, Professor Sir Andre Geim said: “The situation for UK science has never been so gloomy, and things will only get worse” as the science community begins to believe that the UK will not be able to negotiate membership of the Horizon Europe programme. The resulting loss of EU funds could be compounded by many talented researchers leaving the UK to pursue opportunities across Europe.

With spending cuts increasingly likely as the new chancellor wrestles with a mini-budget at the end of the month, it seems possible that the £6.9 billion (US$7.7 billion) put aside for participation in Horizon Europe, or what the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy claims are “bold and ambitious” alternative plans, is at risk.

The EU has already begun notifying UK scientists that they cannot hold leadership roles in projects while the UK’s status in the £80 billion Horizon Europe network remains uncertain.

As European Union countries work collaboratively to resolve energy, inflation, defence and economic pressures, there is an increasing likelihood that an impoverished UK is shut out, or given only scraps to feed on.

The case for higher education

While the UK government has been the author of many of its own problems, the higher education sector cannot escape some responsibility for pursuing international students without considering the mood the nation expressed through Brexit.

Defenders of universities quite rightly extolled the response to the pandemic from institutions. However, there is a sense that well-publicised grade inflation, disquiet about online learning and a drip-feed of scorn about ‘Mickey Mouse courses’ have exhausted public patience.

It is a toxic mix and, as financial pressure exacerbates the public mood, there is unlikely to be sympathy for institutions simply demanding more money amid assertions that they have begun to prefer international students over home students because of the financial benefits.

The tensions are clear and there is little hope of relief in the short term, so institutions might consider how they position themselves in the public consciousness. Accepting the clamour for better information on graduate outcomes, including those working internationally as well as in the UK, would be practical and helpful in soothing anxiety about the enduring value of a degree in tough economic circumstances.

It may even lay the foundation for developing an enduring point of differentiation for ‘Global Britain’ as competition for international students intensifies over the longer term.

Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD. Alan Preece is an expert in global education, business transformation and operational management and runs the blogging site View from a Bridge.