Policy update – June 2024

Ed Bridges, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Academy of Social Sciences 

Balancing the books

Two important reports were released during May, prior to the General Election announcement, both with significant implications for the financial model underpinning England (and indeed much of Wales’) university system.

A report by the UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) found no evidence of widespread abuse of the UK’s graduate visa route, despite repeated claims from ministers that it is being exploited to enter the jobs market. It recommended that the graduate visa entitlement should remain in place, allowing international students to work for two or three years after graduating. A WonkHE article described the report as “nearly the strongest possible steer that MAC could offer the government to leave well enough alone”. Nevertheless, the report may not change the mind of the current UK Government on the issue, as explained in this thread by the Director of Research at think tank Policy Exchange.

The MAC report is particularly timely because the importance of international students to the HE business model was also examined by a recent report from the Office for Students in England. It indicated an over-reliance by universities on international students to plug the gaps left by the declining income from domestic student fees, and stated that up to 40% of England’s universities could run budget deficits this year, and an increasing number face a “material risk of closure”. WonkHE provided a dashboard to model different scenarios for individual providers, as well as a comment piece on some of the potential adverse consequences for students.

Other news in brief

  • REF hints: In an interesting piece for Research Professional (£), a former SpAd to Labour’s science team dropped some indications of the party’s thinking about gauging universities’ research performance. The piece takes its lead from a recent journal article which found that rising academic research impact owes more to the growth of international collaboration than to national policies and practices aimed at growing research excellence. Arguing that “England’s universities are now drowning in red tape”, the Research Professional piece says that “[instead] of exhausting exercises that keep on measuring the wrong thing, reaffirm to academics what the country wants”, with a greater focus on universities’ civic duty.
  • A new CSA at DSIT: Christopher Johnson, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast and also their pro vice-chancellor for engineering and physical sciences, will join the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology as their first Chief Scientific Advisor. He will be joined by a range of non-executive directors at DSIT, some of whom are continuing from the department’s initial startup board. The lineup has a very strong STEM focus, continuing DSIT’s uneven representation of academic disciplines.
  • Lack of movement: There was a brief moment of optimism in late April when the European Commission proposed talks with the UK Government on freeing up cross-border movement for young people, including lowering tuition fees to domestic levels for EU students studying in the UK. The move would not only have potentially encouraged EU students back to the UK, but would also have eased mobility for early career researchers. However, no sooner was the idea mooted than it was rejected – not just by the Conservative UK Government but also by the Labour opposition. The Conservatives said that “free movement within the EU was ended and there are no plans to introduce it”.
  • EU research assessment reform: The European Commission has pledged more action to reform the way research is assessed across the EU, releasing an action plan for how it will implement the Agreement on Reforming Research Assessment, which it coordinated in 2022. The action plan sets out some of the ways in which the Commission will implement the agreement’s commitments, including by recognising the diversity of research contributions, basing assessment primarily on qualitative evaluation and abandoning the “inappropriate” use of metrics.