If reform is not carried out, the higher education sector risks declining into a crisis, Joe Meakin reports

Written by Joseph Meakin
Images by Policy Exchange

A report entitled ‘Universities at the Crossroads,’ by the think tank, Policy Exchange (which counts former education secretary, Michael Gove, amongst its founders), has warned that the higher education sector could descend into crisis, if it does not carry out reform. 

The report – completed following more than 50 interviews with stakeholders (including current and past vice-chancellors) – says that whilst the sector has ‘much to be proud of,’ universities have, in some key areas, ‘lost the trust of the nation.’ 

Policy Exchange has called on the sector to resolve internal issues, highlighting the need to improve governance, address vice-chancellors’ salaries, and bring the disputes over pay, pensions and working conditions to a resolution.

Universities have, in some key areas, lost the trust of the nation

In addition, it highlights concerns about the low quality of some degrees and the controversy surrounding the rise of unconditional offers and the practise of grade inflation. 

The authors have also called out the perceived political biases of the sector, noting that many leaders in higher education were opposed to Brexit and commenting that ‘there is a growing risk that some on the right may begin to see the sector as actively and irredeemably opposed to conservative and British values.’ 

In the wake of this report, it is thought that the new government might tackle higher education next as part of Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.

A contributor to the report, Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, is reported by The Guardian as having ‘told colleagues it was no longer business as usual for universities.’ 

However, Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, is quoted in the same article as saying that ‘universities are just getting the scrutiny that other institutions have long had.’

The government is currently said to be considering its options, mindful of ‘not wanting to tarnish the reputation of England’s universities,’ but wanting at the same time to curb the growth in courses which represent poor value for money for students.