Cutting Through the Current Context of the Higher Education Sector

President Jack O'Neill and VP Education Kate Roberts take a look at the current challenges facing the Higher Education sector.

Last month, we shared a blog with you about the proposed Higher Education ‘support’ package. As the debate and narrative around the sector challenges and movements continues, we need to look at the bigger picture to understand what it may mean for students within the Royal Holloway community.

We don’t currently know exactly what the University will look like in September, but plans are being made right now to ensure that whatever government regulations are in place next year, universities will still be able to provide a high-quality education.

If you filled in our Digital Education survey, you have already inputted into these discussions. As Sabbatical Officers, we have a space in these rooms to ensure these discussions put students at the heart and provide the best experience possible. We will continue to update you when possible about any changes, but it is also important to understand how rapidly the world is changing and how much uncertainty there still is.

What will next year look like?

We can understand that it is a difficult situation to be in. Everything you know about how the world works, from commuting to shopping, has been turned on its head in a very short space of time, and universities are no different. Royal Holloway is an iconic student experience. We have nostalgic aches when remembering that we should be sat in South Quad drinking Pimm's on a hot summer day; instead we're sweltering away in our home offices (i.e. our bedrooms) and socialising by staring at our own faces over Zoom most nights.

The fact of the matter is, that experience is going to look very different moving forward – it hasn’t been changed through want, but through necessity, and forces beyond our control. We all have to adapt, we are entering unchartered waters together, and we have an opportunity to pave the way forward.

In a similar way that universities cannot expect students to suddenly study in different ways with the same expectations, we cannot expect universities to get everything right – tough decisions will have to be made, with perhaps a few mistakes, but we have to navigate the way forward together as we all operate in a situation that none of us asked for.

What about my tuition fees?

Headlines and national petitions are focusing their attention on the topic of tuition fees – forever the centre of debate on Higher Education policy. As discussed in this previous article, the government have placed the price on tuition for next year before knowing what the delivery could be. The situation is very much being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

On one hand, universities require the financial resource from tuition fees (which contribute largely to their income) to fund alternative ways of delivery and ensure the financial sustainability of the institution. On the other hand, students aren’t getting the experience that so many expected, and that some were influenced by in attending university.

Whilst we could demand that universities pay up and refund students, this may solve the latter problem, but worsen the former. Without the income from tuition fees, universities across the country would struggle to make it to the end of the year. However, it is clear that we have to do something – the current situation is creating uncertainty and unfairness to students, but what can be done?

During these unprecedented (yes that word again) times, crucial sectors need to be supported. Higher Education is undoubtedly a crucial sector, and students and institutions should be treated as such. For this to happen, we have to look beyond the gates of Royal Holloway and ask the government to support universities, protect the sector, and aid students.

Through taking action to cancel debt, the government could secure institutional funding so that universities can continue to adapt and deliver, whilst protecting students from financial burden in uncertain circumstances. 

We all need to be reasonable

We need to ensure there is support for students now, as well as safeguard the financial sustainability of the University during this crisis. As Sabbatical Officers, shouting from the rooftops for refunds would be hypocritical. In our role as governors of Royal Holloway University, we would need to say no to this very request, because it would put the institution’s financial sustainability into question.

What we can do is join a national, reasonable approach campaigning for debt reduction for students. We are in touch with the local MP and hope to discuss these concerns further. We are in a global crisis that no one was prepared for, we are all in this together and we need to be sensible.