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Leader: Few tidings of comfort and joy

The bells may be ringing out for Christmas Day, but for the sector they signal alarm after a year of unprecedented upheaval

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring - except for a UK Border Agency officer looking for illegals under the stairs.

This has been a year of trials and tribulations for the higher education sector, with government policy often appearing explicitly designed to trip up the universities.

So in place of maids-a-milking, here are a few of the issues that have dominated our pages over the past 12 months (you’ll have to excuse the lack of ho-ho-ho):

One nuclear option: the appointment of Les Ebdon as head of the Office for Fair Access caused an almighty row, with opponents enraged by his threat to use “the nuclear option” against universities that failed to improve on access. His red button remains untouched.

Two warring departments: the conflict between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Home Office over international student recruitment and the drive to lower net migration has been plain to see. Too often, BIS has been outgunned politically.

Three million students: the number of people worldwide estimated to have taken a massive open online course - a potentially game-changing model for the delivery of higher education. The Open University launched the UK’s first Mooc platform last week.

Four Russell Group entrants: among seven departures from the 1994 Group. This shift in sector alliances reflects a growing emphasis on prestige as universities adapt to the competitive market by becoming ever more brand-conscious.

Five whole years: the length of time it will take to wind up the University of Wales’ validation agreements with overseas partners. The university acted only after journalists exposed an alleged visa scam and fraudulent practices by partner colleges.

Six places falling: well, 6.7. This is the average decline by UK institutions in this year’s THE World University Rankings. The losses were paralleled by Asian gains.

Seven private providers: the number that have now gained degree-awarding powers.

Eight per cent fall in applications: although still early in the process, the first staging post for university applications for 2013 revealed an 8.4 per cent drop in applicants to UK universities year on year. This comes on top of last year’s dramatic decline in numbers.

£9,000 fees: the government said that institutions charging the maximum would be the exception. They proved to be the rule.

Ten months until the REF census: with billions of pounds of research funding at stake, all eyes remain fixed on the research excellence framework 2014. Universities have until October to strengthen their ranks with star signings.

Eleven new universities: while most of those recommended for such status are university colleges, they also include the University of Law, the UK’s first for-profit university.

Twelve months of uncertainty: above all else, the government’s reforms have created an environment so unfamiliar, so untested that universities have been left making repeated stabs in the dark. This was demonstrated most starkly by shifts in student demand, offers and acceptances, which led to around 30,000 fewer student places than expected being filled this year.

Merry Christmas!

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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