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Vice-chancellors voice frustrations with policies

Survey of university chiefs reveals smouldering anger and ‘black swan’ event predictions

Black swan swimming and drinking

Vice-chancellors are showing “striking levels of anger and frustration with the government”, a survey has found.

The sixth annual PA Consulting survey of UK vice-chancellors also found a number warning that any political fallout with China could hit valuable student flows to the UK and research partnerships.

The survey report is based on responses from “around one third of institutional heads across all types of HE provision and all parts of the UK”, with some vice-chancellors adding personal observations on the basis of anonymity.

“From the position of a few years ago, where government priorities and funding were the dominant factors in institutional strategies, government interventions are now regarded as the greatest constraint and threat to future success,” says the report, Here Be Dragons – How Universities Are Navigating the Uncharted Waters of Higher Education.

It adds that “nearly 70 per cent of respondents rated ‘government policies, from domestic or overseas authorities, that undermine market opportunities’ as a major concern”.

Specific examples of problematic government policies were those on international students and teacher training, the report notes.

It refers to vice-chancellors’ “striking levels of anger and frustration with government”.

One vice-chancellor quoted in the report says: “I don’t think the government knows what it is doing and, worse, it doesn’t seem to care. It views the market as sovereign and seems not to be bothered about the consequences.”

Mike Boxall, a higher education specialist at PA Consulting and co-author of the report, said that the relationship between vice-chancellors and government has turned to “disillusionment”.

Paul Woodgates, the report’s other author and another higher education specialist at the management consultancy, said that “at one level the government would be pleased” by feelings among vice-chancellors.

The government has wanted universities to “stand on their own feet and be accountable to students”, and “what we are seeing is largely a consequence of that”, he added.

But he continued that the atmosphere of antagonism “does have implications for the way that the government interacts with the sector” and might also affect how the government thinks about regulation.

The survey also asked vice-chancellors what they feared could be future “black swan” events – unforeseen developments that bring disruptive change.

The report says that there was “concern about future political falling-out with China leading to restrictions on student flows to the UK and/or academic partnerships in China, with real worries that future tightening of visa restrictions could precipitate this situation”.

Mr Boxall said that vice-chancellors had volunteered their concerns about the relationship with China without being prompted. He noted the “huge reliance of the sector on China”, both in terms of international student recruitment and, increasingly, in research links.

Vice-chancellors were also asked about future policy change. There was a high level of consensus “on the likelihood of radical reforms” to the student loans system, the report says, “with 60 per cent thinking this ‘very’ or ‘highly likely’, and on tighter regulatory controls on private providers (nearly 70 per cent)”.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

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