Mental health, tuition fees, and TEF high on the agenda at HE Festival

Richard Budd ( @ddubdrahcir ) reports on the key concerns raised at last month’s Festival of Higher Education.

Specifically described as ‘not a conference’, the Festival of Higher Education, held at the University of Buckingham, largely consisted of two days of panels and debates featuring luminaries from across the worlds of politics, policy analysis, industry, education and higher education.

The event is attended by teachers and head teachers, marketers, academics, the NUS, journalists, and members of the public, making it a very unusual but healthy space in the annual firmament of events. This variety allows for a greater breadth of discussions than the usual run of conferences.

Topics under discussion this year included more or less all of the touchstone topics of the present day: academic selection, curriculum, social mobility, mental health, artificial intelligence, free speech, funding, employability, vocational routes through universities, and policy-making more generally. In addition to Sam Gyimah, Minister of State for Universities and Science, Michael Barber – the Chair for the Office for Students (OfS), as well as former politicians David Willets and Andrew Adonis. The writing on the wall, at least as far as HE discourse and policy over the next few years, seems to indicate the following:

  • Students’ mental health is an increasingly acknowledged as a major problem;
  • Tuition fees are going to change, and there may well be subsidies for some courses but places on these will be limited;
  • TEF is acknowledged as imperfect but is here to stay – it may well follow the RAE/REF route by being steadily improved but this will include concomitant rises in costs related to its implementation;
  • The hunt for ‘challenger institutions’ (i.e. new entrants to the sector) is being actively encouraged, particular around less traditional course delivery modes;
  • Vocational routes from post-16 and through higher education are high on the government’s agenda – the Minister said that, as long as he is in post, he wants to see a variety of vocational and academic pathways;
  • Free speech is still a central focus of politicians (and journalists) in spite of the facts that the consensus in the sector is that it is not a significant problem.


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