Higher Education Policy Landscape – Summer 2023

Marina Tapley, Policy and Research Officer at Yorkshire Universities

This briefing provides an overview of key Higher Education (HE) policy developments up to July 2023, highlighting national updates that will impact HE in Yorkshire, as well as examples of key developments within the region. This briefing was originally shared to provide context and updates about the HE landscape to external partners that YU is working with across local government and has been adapted for our website.

Lifelong Learning 

In March 2023, the Government responded to the outcomes of the Department for Education’s (DfE) consultation on the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), which ran between February and May 2022. The LLE is due to be introduced from the start of Academic Year 2025/26, with a phased approach to the expansion of modular funding. The Government hope the LLE will allow people to study, train, retrain and upskill across Further Education and Higher Education throughout their lives to respond to changing skills needs and employment patterns. Learners will be able to access an entitlement to the equivalent of funding for four years of HE study (£37,000 in today’s fees) via the LLE personal account online platform. Fee limits for module learning will be set using credits. LLE funded modules will need to be part of a full “parent course”, have a single qualification level and credit value, include a minimum of 30 credits and provide a standardised transcript. A full briefing on the Government Response to the LLE Consultation is available on the Yorkshire Universities website, which reflects on the potential impacts for HE in Yorkshire, with a focus on place and collaboration. 

HE Funding System 

As well as the changes to the HE funding system, that are due with the start of the LLE, there are broader questions about the sustainability of the HE funding model for providers as home fees have remained capped at around £9,000 for over a decade. This has led to an increased dependence on fees from international students, which could be at risk from Government plans to curb net migration. The continued increases in costs due to high inflation, fall in the real value of home tuition fees, and potential decline in international students presents a period of significant financial pressure for the HE sector. A May 2023 Guardian article highlighted these issues, and included comments from two Board Members of Yorkshire Universities, Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, and Professor Charlie Jeffery, Vice-Chancellor at the University of York. Professor Jeffery outlined the case for increasing public funding for universities, without necessarily increasing tuition fees. Professor Husbands emphasised that politicians need to act now to support the HE sector in order to retain its strength as an international leader.  

For new students starting courses in September 2023, the graduate repayment threshold will be lowered to £25,000, until 2027, when the threshold will be increased annually in-line with RPI rather than wage growth. The student loan interest rate will be set at inflation only, as measured by RPI, and the student loan repayment term will be extended from 30 to 40 years. The freeze to and slower uprating of the repayment threshold (i.e. the ‘stealth tax’) and the extension of the repayment period both provide significant reductions in costs to the Exchequer, but are regressive as the additional payments impact low to middle income graduates more. The distribution of the impacts is also linked to geographic context, as highly paid graduate jobs are particularly centred in London and the South East. The Government has still left issues around student maintenance unaddressed, and students have lost out on their loan entitlement as the parental earnings threshold to receive the full loan has been frozen at £25,000 since 2008. If the parental earnings threshold had risen in line with average earnings, it would be around £34,000 now and double the amount of students would be eligible for the full loan. In September 2022, maintenance loans increased by 2.3%, while the rate of annual CPI inflation was at 10.1%, meaning that maintenance support has been significantly cut in real terms cuts. In September 2023, maintenance loans for English students are set to rise 2.8% based of an estimate published in October 2021. 

A May 2023 briefing from London Economics on alternative options for higher education fees and funding for England models how alternative scenarios compare to the Government’s changes to fees and suggests that a re-introduction of real interest rates would provide a progressive alternative to saving HM Treasury money and could “effectively fund both the re-introduction of maintenance grants for students from low to middle income households and an effective short run tax cut through a large reduction in repayment rates.”  

HE Reform Consultation 

The HE Reform consultation response published in July 2023, outlines the government’s response to the proposals set out within the higher education policy statement and reform consultation, as well as the government’s vision for the higher education sector. You can also read the government’s published consultation analysis and equality impact assessment. These announcements got a lot of media coverage based on the Government presenting their approach as a ‘crackdown on rip-off university degrees’ in their press release.  

For higher education, the key measures are: 

  • OfS has been advised to impose student number controls for courses with poor outcomes – as measured by continuation, completion and progression. This is based on existing OfS powers and related metrics, but the government have also asked OfS to consider the use of earnings data. 
  • The maximum threshold for foundation year fees will reduce from £9,250 to £5,760, apart from for some high-cost subjects. 
  • The Office for Students (OfS) to set clearer expectations on quality, governance, transparency, and value for money around franchising arrangements
  • The government will not proceed with introducing Minimum Eligibility Requirements at this time. 

When we responded to this consultation in 2022, YU raised concerns that Student Number Controls and Minimum Eligibility Requirements could further entrench geographic and demographic disparities. 

HE Regulation  

From 2024, all higher education providers in England will be expected to produce new access and participation plans following the late 2022 Office for Students (OfS) consultation on a new a approach to regulating equality of opportunity in English HE. The new plans will identify risks relevant to a provider’s context in line with the OfS Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, how the provider plans to mitigate risks and the expected outcomes, how they will evaluate impact and what investment they plan to make into access and participation. Yorkshire Universities supported Go Higher West Yorkshire’s submission to TASO’s Rapid review to support development of the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, which was published in March 2023, highlighting the impact of geography on access.   

Between February and May 2023, OfS also consulted on a new approach to regulating harassment and sexual misconduct in English HE, proposing a new condition of registration that would place regulatory requirements on all registered providers. A summary of responses and OfS’ decision is expected to be published later in 2023.  

The Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Act, which became law on 11 May 2023, means that HE providers and student unions that fail to comply with free speech obligations may face sanctions. Professor Arif Ahmed has been appointed the first Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at the Office for Students, charged with overseeing the investigation breaches of the Act.  

International Students and their Dependants 

In a statement on 23 May, Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, announced a restriction in the use of dependant visas for international students unless they are on postgraduate courses currently designated as research programmes. The package announced also includes measures to remove the ability for international students to switch out of the student route into work routes before their studies have been completed. Multiple media reports suggest that the new rules could come into effect for students starting their courses in January 2024, which may result in a surge in demand for the September 2023 intake. When the visa changes are implemented, the potential reduction in international students presents a clear risk for the HE sector, which is increasingly dependent on cross-subsidy from international student fees in the context of the real terms value of home fees being continually eroded. It is unclear if there is public support for these changes. Recent polling by Public First, for Universities UK, suggests that only a small minority of the public (9%) thought that international students should be discouraged from coming to the UK. 

A report produced by London Economics, for the Higher Education Policy Institute, Universities UK International, and Kaplan International Pathways on ‘The benefits and costs of international higher education students to the UK economy’, set out the significant increase in the economic benefits of international higher education across all of UK. Sheffield and Leeds featured in the top ten local areas in the UK where international students make the greatest economic contributions. The figures show that, outside of London and the South East, Yorkshire and the Humber was the most attractive destination in England for international students, with the highest number of international first-year students in 2021/22.  

Chair of Yorkshire Universities, Professor Karen Bryan, is a Commissioner on the International Higher Education Commission (IHEC), chaired by Chris Skidmore MP. The IHEC is working on developing recommendations for a new ‘International Education Strategy 2.0’ and Yorkshire Universities is working with the Commission on the development of further regional analysis in the Commission’s work.  

Graduate Employment  

The most recent Graduate Outcomes data released on 31 May showed that, despite the impacts of COVID, 90% of 2020/21 graduates who responded to the Graduate Outcomes survey were in some form of work or further study and there was a 4% increase in full-time employment compared to the 2019/20 cohort. The questions that measure graduates’ own views of their activities at the time of the survey found that 84% of UK domicile first degree graduates felt their activity was meaningful, 75% agreed it fit with their future plans and 66% agreed thought they were using what they had learned in their studies. 64% of responding 2020/21 graduates who were working in Yorkshire and Humber 15 months after graduation had studied at a provider in the region. Yorkshire Universities will continue to investigate the regional dimensions of this Graduate Outcomes through our Graduate Data Group. In the latest Graduate Labour Market statistics, published by the Government in June 2023, Yorkshire had the highest employment rate for graduates of any region in England. 

Yorkshire Universities has supported HE engagement with Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs), with Executive Director, Dr Peter O’Brien, sitting on the Boards of the North Yorkshire and West Yorkshire LSIPs, which were submitted to Government on 31 May.  

We have also been working with WYCA and member institutions on the development of the Mayor’s Graduate SME Pilot, which is expected to be launched later this year. This aligns with our broader work across Yorkshire on Graduate Employment and Employability, where we have been working directly on projects led by Central Government, Local Authorities, Health and Care Sector and the Financial Services Sector.  

Research and Innovation  

Following the formation of the Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology (DSIT), in March 2023, the new department published a refreshed UK Science and Technology Framework, alongside the final report of the Independent Review of the UK’s Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) Organisational Landscape (Nurse Review).  

The UK Science and Technology Framework identified five ‘critical technologies’ that the UK is aiming to be a global leader in – artificial intelligence, engineering biology, future telecommunications, semiconductors, and quantum technologies. The framework also indicates that DSIT will publish a cross-government action plan, which will include piloting new Innovation Accelerators, to support UK city regions to become globally competitive centres for research and innovation. DSIT has committed to publishing an update by the end of 2023, highlighting progress and outlining further actions that will need to be taken. 

The Nurse Review suggests that the impressive RDI outputs of the UK happen in a context of issues with a complex and volatile RDI landscape, with excessive bureaucracy and a lack of financial sustainability. The Report identified the need for in-depth review and reform of funding mechanisms and emphasised the need for more complete ‘end-to-end’ funding of research activities beyond direct research costs, and for more stable, long-term funding mechanisms to build stability and confidence, therefore encouraging investment. The Report sees an enhanced role for universities contributing to equitable regional economic growth by supporting their local communities and economies, and helping local industries link to research capabilities. A specific recommendation within the report calls for a pilot project to set up information facilities within universities in disadvantaged areas, to connect local communities and businesses to research. The Government has said that it will publish a response clarifying the extent to which recommendations will be implemented. 

An independent review into the UK university spin-outs is due to report to the Secretary of State this summer. The review aims to identify and evaluate best practice in spin-out and licensing deals for university intellectual property to promote continued growth in this area. Research England has announced they will launch the first Connecting Capability Fund (CCF) – Research England Development (RED) funding call in June 2023 as part of a long-term programme of new investments for commercialisation success. £20 million will be available for bids of up to £1.5 million over one or two years focusing on ecosystem development, proof of concept, critical training, and physical infrastructure.  

On 25 May, the Government announced a £650 million ‘Life Sci for Growth’ package as a ‘war chest for the UK’s life sciences sector to support the economy and reduce NHS waiting times. The announcement also included plans to relaunch the Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) as Health Innovation Networks. Locally the Yorkshire & Humber AHSN brings together those working across health, academia and innovation, and is a key partner of Yorkshire Universities.  

In June 2023, South Yorkshire was announced as the UK’s first Investment Zone, which will support partnership between local government and universities to catalyse innovation in a key growth sector. The South Yorkshire Investment Zone is focused on Advanced Manufacturing and includes the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University. Communities in South Yorkshire, including Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley, are set to benefit from an estimated 8,000 new jobs and £1.2 billion of investment.  

Research England has published funding budgets for university research and knowledge exchange for 2023-24 and 2024-25.  You can also read a circular letter from the Executive Chair of Research England, Professor Dame Jessica Corner, and the specific guidance to UKRI from the Department of Science, Innovation & Technology. 

Academic policy engagement: Y-PERN and Y-PIP 

The Research England-funded Yorkshire and Humber Policy Engagement and Research Network (Y-PERN) project continues to make significant progress. By September, all core Policy Fellows will be in situ across Yorkshire and the Humber. Recently, we welcomed Dr Elizabeth Sanderson and Dr Jamie Redman, both based at Sheffield Hallam University, Dr Juan Winter at the University of Hull and Dr Thomas Haines-Dorman, our new West Yorkshire Policy Fellow, who is based at the University of Leeds. Thomas is supporting WYCA in its Call for Evidence for the West Yorkshire Economic Strategy. We also welcomed Kayleigh Renberg-Fawcett as the new Y-PERN Senior Programme Manager. Kayleigh brings a wealth of experience from her time managing the Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (CAPE) programme led by University College London, and as convenor of the DLUHC Local and Regional Authorities Academic Advisory Forum.  

The Inaugural Y-PERN Conference was held on 19-20 January. This was the first of a series of events to be held across the region over the next three years. Over 100 delegates attended, which saw speaker contributions from 24 regional leaders and policy partners, and 20 senior academics. The focus of the Conference was on the immediate cost of living crisis and the structural and strategic opportunities and challenges facing Yorkshire. Thematic sessions examined the impact of cost pressures for communities and businesses; devolution and place-based innovation; infrastructure investment; and the just transition to a net-zero economy.  

Presentations and other material from the inaugural event can be accessed via Sway

Y-PERN has recently had national success in securing Phase 1 funding for a Local Policy Innovation Partnership (LPIP) from UK Research and Innovation. This application, to create the Yorkshire and Humber Policy Innovation Partnership (Y-PIP), headed by Professor Gary Dymski, at the University of Leeds, awards up to £4m of funding to support research co-produced with and benefitting regional policy. All member institutions of Yorkshire Universities are participants in Y-PIP, and Yorkshire and Humber Councils is a key partner in the bid, with Kersten England a named Co-Investigator. Y-PIP was the only north of England proposal to receive funding, and it moves into the next stage alongside ten other projects across the UK. If successful, Y-PIP will enable new research to be commissioned and connected directly into the Y-PERN academic policy engagement infrastructure.  

Y-PERN is working in partnership with the Whitehall User Group on Green Book metrics / evaluation, examining and providing recommendations on the practical implication of Green Book guidance on investment in regions. A joint workshop was held, on 8 June, by Y-PERN and WM-REDI, University of Birmingham, for regional policymakers, practitioners and academics.  

Dr Stuart Mills and Y-PERN Chief Policy Fellow, Dr Richard Whittle, have published a new behavioural science framework in Public Administration. A University of Leeds Impact Leadership award of £20,000 is supporting the use of this framework by Wakefield Council to evaluate and scale up their smoking cessation activities. Professor Jamie Morgan (Leeds Beckett University) has recently published work on Cryptocurrency in the Cambridge Journal of Economics, as well as a paper in Energy Economics investigating housing retrofit in West Yorkshire with two Y-PERN Policy Fellows, Dr Chau Chu and Dr Thomas Haines-Dornan.  

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