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PA Consulting's annual HE survey sees demise of funding "cash cows"


London: PA Consulting Group anticipates a sea-change in higher education as universities recognise they can no longer rely on the government as a 'cash cow' in its fifth annual survey of leaders of higher education institutions.

Higher education (HE) leaders are worried that declining government grants, limits on undergraduate numbers and fees, and cuts to research funding mark the demise of their traditional 'cash cows'. Over half are expecting a decline in the sector and many predict institutional failures — some suggesting as many as 30, according to PA's survey of higher education leaders.

Over 80 per cent of HE leaders fear they won't be able to find adequate substitutes for lost public revenues, creating a sea-change in strategic priorities. Historical obsessions with government funding policies have been replaced by a battle to attract students; government is now seen by over half of HE leaders as the single biggest hindrance to their plans for improving student experiences.

How are higher education leaders responding?

Competition for students is now the major force for change in higher education and over 90 per cent of HE leaders rank improving student experience as a 'top three' strategic priority.

They are responding to this by:

  • Improving access to academic staff — the most important aspect of student experience, according to university leaders, is access to and time with academic staff; over 80 per cent cite this as a high priority. Worryingly, nearly a quarter of leaders feel constrained in their attempts to improve access to academic staff by staff resistance to change and lack of skills.
  • Using internet technologies — over half expect internet technologies such as Moocs to enhance the student experience by providing new models of blended and flexible learning. However, there is little concern that this growth will be at the expense of traditional provision, and few consider online technology as very likely to reduce costs or fees for students
  • Enhancing graduate employability — work placements and similar experiences are seen as crucial to enhancing students' employment prospects, and three quarters of respondents give high priority to the availability of work placements and related extra-curricular opportunities. However, 40 per cent identified difficulties in securing such placements as a significant constraint.
  • Rationalising internally — over 78 per cent of HE leaders expect significant structural changes through institutional mergers and takeovers. In practice, however, the evidence suggests that rationalisation is happening within rather than across institutions. There were more than 20,000 fewer undergraduate courses offered through UCAS in 2012 compared with 2006, and many under-recruiting departments have been closed.

Mike Boxall, higher education expert at PA Consulting Group, says, "It is clear that we are witnessing a sea-change in the dynamics of higher education. Leaders no longer expect funding or innovative thinking from official sources and government funding is no longer part of providers' survival plans. After years of rhetoric, students and the experiences offered to them are finally driving changes at the heart of the higher education system."

Paul Woodgates, higher education expert at PA Consulting Group, commented, "A diverse system of different models of learning, different types of institution and different types of student experience is emerging. This trend poses a major challenge to conventional thinking about universities. Higher education leaders need to be imaginative in how they embrace these new dynamics."

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