Many of us with an interest in education policy have watched over the years as the Australian and UK higher education systems have borrowed many ideas from each other. As someone who has worked in the sector in both countries, I have seen this up close.
Recently I spoke at a virtual event hosted by the UK Higher Education Strategic Planners Association on the topic of international responses to COVID-19 in higher education. At the event we discussed some emerging trends in Australia and the impact they may have on the UK. Here are some key themes.
The Australian Government is proposing to revise the fees domestic undergraduates pay for their higher education by changing the fee structures for disciplines. Given the sharing of ideas between Australia and the UK – particularly England – the implications from these recent developments are worth considering.
New rates for differentiated fees are ostensibly designed to encourage students to take up courses deemed valuable for the future economy. But, at the system level, they also aim to provide for more student places within the same overall level of funding. This approach is also consistent with increasingly separating the funding of universities’ teaching and research activities; the Australian sector is awaiting news on the settlement for research funding.
In England, recent governments have explored the prospect of differentiated undergraduate fees, but introducing this approach may be more challenging there than in Australia, where the policy is a variation on the existing arrangements rather than a new paradigm.
This year’s number cap, albeit since scrapped, and additional targeted places suggest Westminster is keen to become more interventionist. It also seems likely that English policymakers will pay close attention to the Australian developments, particularly whether changing fee structures does in fact provide the signals – to students and providers – that lead to the outcomes that governments want. Understanding how universities manage differential fees, and their implications for managing costs, will be an important capability for providers.
Given the disruption of COVID-19 on the flow of international students, universities are looking for answers – or at least plausible predictions – on what may happen next. There is speculation the UK’s management of the pandemic will dent its appeal to foreign students, but as the recent spike in cases and renewed lockdown in Victoria has shown, the outcomes for different countries are not yet settled.
Australian states and territories have invested in destination marketing, but the UK has done less to market its regions to international students. The time may have come for the UK to use differentiated attraction strategies that demonstrate the benefits of particular regions.
This could work well for the devolved administrations, and English regions could also seek to promote their benefits, particularly personal safety, advanced healthcare and a warm welcome. Universities should consider how they can promote their individual institution at its best and whether that can be supported at a regional level.
Many questions to the panel asked about the potential for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) in response to the pandemic. This response is more plausible in the UK than in Australia given the greater number of institutions (in absolute terms and by population) and the closer proximity of providers.
But the history of M&A in higher education is that too many parties have an effective veto that can block the changes; it is difficult to get around individual agendas and competing visions for the future.
While M&A can be challenging, the UK should look to how Australia has many successful large universities – eight with more than 50,000 students. It could be attractive for UK universities to reach this scale and enjoy benefits including more efficient operations, consolidation of capital and physical assets, and reaching a critical mass of researchers.
University leaders and their governing bodies need to consider the opportunities and risks of M&A. It is not as easy as continuing on the same path but could position universities to meet future challenges.
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Published on 21 August 2020.