From education to employment

Should we be worried about the long-term future of London’s universities? 

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With the true value of university degrees being called into question several times this week – Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show and Monday night’s BBC2 documentary ‘Is University Really Worth It?‘ – should we be worried about the future of London’s universities?

Universities are more than simply institutions of teaching and research. They act as engines of progress for their local region and play a crucial role in attracting talent, supporting businesses to grow, and delivering technologies and skills for new industries to flourish. 

By fostering a culture of learning, innovation and community engagement, universities contribute significantly to the social and economic well-being of the surrounding region.

Collectively, London’s universities and higher education colleges educated more than 507,000 students, employed more than 223,000 people across all sectors of the UK economy and generated more than £27bn in economic impact. Individual universities also have a significant economic impact: UCL alone generates an estimated £9.9 billion annually. 

Yet, the futures of the city’s universities aren’t guaranteed. 

A sector in crisis

UK universities are in crisis – four in ten forecast a deficit and universities are predicted to lose more than £17bn in real income over the next four years. The level of financial pressure on the sector is rising as the tuition fees for domestic students, capped at £9,250 since 2017, have failed to keep up with the pace of inflation. 

Universities have no room for error when it comes to spending decisions. Something has got to give and universities cannot afford for that to be the quality of education, support services or the overall university experience for their students. Many universities are run on ageing IT systems, no longer fit for purpose, causing huge inefficiencies and presenting compliance and risk problems. The need to find new ways of working and invest in modern technology has never been more evident. 

Survival of the fittest

The latest data from UCAS shows that UK university applications are down for the third year in a row, and the trend of declining international applications, largely as a result of government policy changes, compounds the problem. International students now account for roughly a fifth of UK universities’ income, up from a tenth a decade ago. 

Any drop in international students is bad news for London which is home to a third (127,000) of the UK’s entire international student population. A 2023 report by HEPI suggests international students contribute £41.9 billion to the UK.

With universities having to compete more fiercely than ever before for their share of domestic and international students, the city’s universities need to be able to offer an outstanding student experience – from application right through to graduation. Technology will play a vital role in helping them to both attract and retain students. Most university students of today are digital natives and have elevated expectations of the technological capabilities of their university. 

Digital transformation

Digital transformation will be absolutely key in helping students stay the course. Student dropout rates are a major concern for universities. Student maintenance loans have failed to keep up with the rising cost of living, and, according to recent research, 7 in 10 UK students have considered dropping out of university with the cost of living as the leading reason. Juggling work commitments alongside studies marks a new normal as, for the first time on record, research has shown that more university students are engaged in paid employment than not. 

Student attrition is not only a wasted opportunity for the individual but also a threat to a university’s pre-committed revenue. Proactive universities are increasingly turning to smart technology for solutions to identify and intervene when students face challenges – be it financial or emotional – to minimise attrition rates and ensure student success.

Digital transformation projects require significant investment and resources, so it is understandable that those universities already tightening their belts during the cost of living crisis are hesitant to engage with new technology. But smart investments such as these will be crucial in helping universities find savings, better serve students tomorrow and offer the way forward to future-proof their stability and success. 

By Leo Hanna, UK Executive Vice President of TechnologyOne

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