UA Speech: “Higher education and courses policy going forward”


This is an edited version of a speech our CEO Vanessa Wilson delivered to the Westminster Higher Education Forum on 7th November 2022.

She spoke about the future of course provision, growth and quality going forward and priorities for regulation in this area.

Higher education and courses policy going forward”

This is an edited version of a speech our CEO Vanessa Wilson delivered to the Westminster Higher Education Forum on 7th November 2022.

She spoke about the future of course provision, growth and quality going forward and priorities for regulation in this area.

“Once again, as a sector, a nation, and a global community, we are facing unprecedented economic challenges.

Most of my 30-year career has been working with and for central government – and I’ve never known anything quite like it.


My thoughts are with those policy officials who must navigate us through all the instability and deliver solutions to the constant challenges posed by crisis after crisis.

We all await the Autumn statement of 17th November with bated breath as the media speculates where the axes will fall.

You might ask: what does this have to with Higher Education policy, quality and regulation? Well, pretty much everything.

Every economic expert will tell you that the formula for saving the economy needs to be rooted in driving substantial and sustainable growth.

How you achieve that is the subject of much discourse, but essentially it boils down to:

  1. Creating a highly skilled workforce and a sustainable pipeline
  2. Reducing economic inactivity
  3. Boosting business investment
  4. Addressing regional income disparities (essentially levelling up)
  5. Improving business performance
  6. Ensuring supply chains work optimally
  7. Brokering international trade agreements
  8. Ensuring your public services run optimally



Higher education positively impacts all of these key elements of the growth formula work.

In University Alliance’s Vision for Growth, published in September, we highlighted three key ways where universities can drive growth:

  1. Delivering a highly skilled workforce for industry and the public sector
  2. Driving regional growth and prosperity
  3. Turbo-boosting the UK’s global ambitions

We also called upon the government to ensure the Higher Education sector can fulfil its incredible potential to benefit the nation and regions. There are several ways of achieving this, including:

Embracing and welcoming the role of international students and promote and support transnational education.

International Students

On this latter point, the government’s recent rhetoric regarding International Students beggars’ belief, and will potentially have a devastating impact.

International Students are worth around £29bn a year to the UK’s economy at a time when the Chancellor faces a black hole of £50bn.

To adopt off-putting policies, stances and rhetoric at this time makes no sense from an economic perspective. And then there’s the soft power potential that international students and transnational education plays in building those vital international bridges leading to critical trade agreements.


The debate around skills tends to lead to questions whether we need more or fewer graduates, and the value of degrees.

Here’s what I would say:

Whilst the overall employment level is at a record-breaking high, there are in fact chronic workforce shortages in critical sectors: in healthcare, education, IT, engineering, and the creative industries.

If we want a world-leading economy, we need a world-leading skilled workforce.

Our competitors know this. Countries such as Singapore and Germany have proactive strategies in place to develop their workforce through increased university participation.

The evidence for sustaining and indeed increasing the percentage of young people educated to at least degree level is overwhelming. This is why I wholeheartedly support the Tony Blair Institute’s call for a 70% HE participation target by 2040.

Research conducted by the Learning and Work Institute[1] in 2019 suggests that even with a million students in 2026, it would leave us with a considerable skills gap. They predict that, by 2030 there could be 17.4 million high-skilled jobs with only 14.8 million high-skilled workers – a deficit of 2.5 million people.

One of our members Kingston University has done extensive work in this area; their Future Skills work with employers consistently reports that the skills we need from the future workforce are essentially the 4Cs: communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.

Meanwhile, research by McKinsey suggests that graduates had higher proficiency across the 56 skills they identified as being necessary for future workplaces.

The evidence for addressing the skills gap is overwhelming.

The current government has spent too much time in office denigrating the value of degrees and complaining that too many people go to university, whilst doing precious little to offer any new ideas.

The one new idea we have been supportive of is the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, due to be delivered by 2025. At University Alliance, we have been very supportive and even designed a blueprint and submitted it into the DfE.

They need to adopt this and stop wasting time debating whether too many students are going to university and ask if a million students by 2026 is sufficient to meet the skills demands of the future.

The government should be working with the HE sector and with employers to develop a strategy for meeting this demand whilst sustainably funding UK Higher Education, while ensuring there are smooth pathways into jobs for graduates.

Our sector is agile and dynamic – and can meet both learners and employer’s needs.

I can only speak for University Alliance members but our heritage and purpose has always been industry-focussed: our courses have predominantly been developed with and for industry, with placements and partnerships a key element of student’s experience.

This I believe will become a critical element of the curriculum of the future.

I believe the case for higher education expansion in the UK is irrefutable on the grounds of economic growth, human capital and globalisation.

Governments need to pay heed to – and not take for granted a sector that has continuously stepped up, particularly in hard times such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now is the time to ensure our world-class higher education system is turbo-boosted to thrive.

Governments can achieve this through a radical reduction in regulation and red tape, and with a funding formula that unlocks impact in terms of research and development, widening participation and regional growth.


Britain’s higher education sector is one of the few sectors that we can still genuinely claim to be world leading.

However, it is simply not funded properly, and we will lose our competitive edge unless we pick up the pace.

OECD data shows that the UK has lower public spending on higher education than almost all our closest competitor countries. We spend less taxpayer money on higher education than Canada, France, Germany and the US. This is despite having higher participation rates than all these nations, apart from Canada.

HE urgently needs a long-term plan for sustainable funding and to grow higher education capacity in the UK to meet demand from employers, learners, and our international partners.

When the current tuition fee level gets nowhere close to covering the real costs of tuition, and universities must resort to intense cross-subsidisation to make it all work, we have a real problem.

We simply can’t afford to fail our higher education sector – and indeed future generations – when it is the driving force of growing our economy in a post-Brexit, post-Covid world.


Another preoccupation of ministers and regulators is quality.

Students are increasingly very savvy consumers, who have more access to information about university courses than ever before.

They understand the benefits that university can deliver for them, and they know how to find the course that best suits their needs.

UK higher education is one of the most regulated education sectors in the world: university courses must deliver high-quality education, otherwise universities simply will not exist.

The UK also has the lowest drop-out rates among comparative developed countries, and an enviable graduate employment rate of almost 100% just 15 months after graduation.

Whilst no sector is perfect, there is very little evidence to suggest that low-quality is rife in higher education.

In fact, the only thing that rhetoric around ‘low quality’ achieves is to denigrate our higher education sector and damage our international reputation.

From April next year, we will no longer have a respected and trusted Quality Assurance Agency working with the sector to ensure we continuously push the boundaries of enhancing quality across the sector.


So, here’s what I think needs to happen

  1. The Government needs to adopt our policy suggestions as featured in our Vision for Growth.
  2. The Government needs to get serious about higher education. Fund it properly – it will reap rewards for the economy, industry, future generations and the nation.
  3. To this end, the Government should appoint a Minister for Higher Education and locate them in the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, where the alignment with future workforce, skills, R&D makes absolute sense.
  4. Stop the divisive talk of technical education versus vocational versus academic, and whether one is more valuable than the other. They’re all valuable and they’re all taught at every university across the UK. You don’t need to invent anything new: it’s all there.
  5. Radically review the regulation landscape, because the level of bureaucracy and red tape is killing the sector. Whole armies of people are employed by universities simply to manage the requests of the regulators.
  6. Finally, champion and don’t denigrate our higher education sector! It’s one our greatest national assets. I used to work in Olympic and Paralympic sport, can you imagine a sports minister constantly denigrating Team GB and ParalympicsGB before every Olympic and Paralympic games? Yet a succession of universities ministers and secretary of states have done exactly this, taking pot shots at universities, courses and students.

We need to leverage our university sector in every way we can – including making our country welcoming for internationals students – to turbo boost our economy.”



Further reading