2023 in review

It’s been another whirlwind year for the higher education sector – and a successful one for the Alliance. 

These are my reflections on a few of the stand-out moments from 2023. 

1. ‘Must do better’: the House of Lord’s Industry and Regulators Committee reviews the OfS 

We kicked off the year by working with our fellow mission groups across the sector on a joint letter calling for an inquiry into the performance of the Office for Students. Though we didn’t get an inquiry from the Education Select Committee, the HoL Industry and Regulator’s Committee stepped up to the plate. In April, myself and others gave evidence to the committee. 

The Committee report affirmed many of the issues raised in the evidence-gathering sessions, particularly on the sustainability of higher education funding as it stands. We now look forward to working with the OfS constructively as they address the committee’s concerns in 2024. 

2. #InnovateForGrowth and regional innovation funding 

Ahead of the Spring Statement, we collaborated with our knowledge exchange and enterprise network to write a letter to the Chancellor, urging him to address the withdrawal of European Regional Development Funding. Over 300 SMEs (who had been supported by UA member projects) signed the letter. For some powerful further reading, I would thoroughly recommend browsing the business testimonials at the bottom of this page. 

The ERDF provided vital funding to university projects and initiatives that supported SMEs, but was facing a ‘funding cliff-edge’ at the end of March. Following campaign activity throughout the year, we were very relieved by the introduction of a new £60m Regional Innovation Fund to support local innovation, commercialisation and economic growth, announced in September. 

At Labour party conference in Liverpool, our #InnovateforGrowth drinks reception celebrated our members’ research and innovation work, and teased some of our next steps, which we’ll be moving forward in 2024: watch this space! 

UA 'Innovate for Growth' event at Labour party conference

3. The Long-Term NHS Workforce plan 

One of the big developments of the year for alliance universities – who train a third of the country’s nurses – was the announcement of the long-awaited NHS Long-Term Workforce Plan. 

Ahead of the plan, we published our ‘Delivering the Healthcare Workforce of the Future’ briefing. It outlines how universities, the NHS and the government can work together to find solutions to the ongoing NHS workforce crisis.  

Some of our recommendations were featured in the Long-Term Workforce Plan when it was eventually published, such as increased support for simulation in nursing training, and a commitment to regulatory reform.  

We believe that to deliver the plan effectively, government will need to convene a cross-government health education taskforce, including universities as key partners. In the new year, we will redouble our efforts to get this off the ground. 

4. #ArtIsEssential 

Working with bodies across the higher education and creative sectors, we published the #ArtIsEssential Creative Education Manifesto back in September, calling for the creative education and skills pipeline to be better protected in schools and higher education.  

We celebrated the manifesto at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts with over 100 attendees from across the higher education and creative sectors, and 111 individuals and organisations have signed up to join the coalition since our manifesto launched. I wrote a piece for WonkHE outlining the key asks in the manifesto, and why I feel so strongly about protecting the creative skills pipeline. 

5. I heart degree apprenticeships 

1 in 3 degree apprenticeship starts were at an Alliance University at last count. Through our members’ work we have seen first-hand how degree apprenticeships benefit students and employers alike. As UCAS data now shows, degree apprenticeships are soaring in popularity. We want to ensure that provision expands to meet demand, and have delivered a number of briefings and roundtables this year that focus on tackling hidden costs and needless bureaucracy in DA delivery.  

We were delighted to host a private roundtable with skills minister Robert Halfon in October, where he met with degree apprentices, employer partners and apprenticeship leads from alliance institutions to discuss the value of degree apprenticeships and solutions to help expand them. We were very pleased that he indulged us by posing with our ‘I heart degree apprenticeships’ photo frame! 

As the general election approaches, we will be engaging even more with Labour as their thinking around the apprenticeship levy solidifies. 

6. The final phase of DTA3

2023 saw the final phase of our DTA3/COFUND programme, a £6.5million EU grant that funded 71 research fellows across our 15 university partners. Fellows led cutting-edge research in areas including boarder policing, cancer therapies, wind turbines, and gardening as a treatment for people with dementia!

Our community of international alum come from 27 nations and have published over 150 academic manuscripts and presented at over 200 conferences. The Doctoral Training Alliance (DTA) team coordinated over 50 in-person and online events, including our annual Summer School which took place in Greenwich University in July. Looking into 2024, we are excited to further strength our global network through the launch our new website, as well as DTA Connections fellowship award. 

7. I’ll raise a glass to that!

This is less a moment, and more a series of moments, but it would be remiss of me not to celebrate here some of the achievements from across the alliance membership this year. 

We welcomed the University of West London (UWL) to UA this year, bringing our total number of members to 16. With their focus on employability, UWL are the perfect fit for the Alliance, and we’re very much looking forward to celebrating the Alliance Awards 2024 on their campus next September.  

Speaking of the Alliance Awards, this year’s shortlist and winners showed innovation in teaching and learning, knowledge exchange, student wellbeing and employability support and much more.  I’d strongly recommend checking out the Alliance Award nominees and winners for examples of professional and technical universities in action. We celebrated the Awards at the University of South Wales’s beautiful Trefforest campus. Huge thanks to our event partners at TechnologyOne, as well as sponsors UCAS and Duolingo English Test for helping make the event happen.

In a different kind of awards, Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) outcomes showed Alliance universities were the most likely university group to score gold for teaching. 

UWE’s VC Professor (now Professor Sir!) Steve West was knighted, whilst the University of Brighton’s VC (and UA’s outgoing Chair) Professor Debra Humphris was awarded a CBE. Professor Jane Harrington, CEO at the University of Greenwich, replaced Debra as our new Chair in September, after a long tenure which included guiding us through the COVID years. 

Next year: Let’s Get Technical 

In September, we published our policy priorities in ‘Let’s Get Technical’. In the new year, as a general election looms, we’ll be focussing in on a few of these and really trying to ensure that our policy solutions are heard.  

We’ll be particularly focussed on student maintenance support, and ensuring the next government addresses the financial shortfalls affecting the sector in the immediate term and develops a more joined-up strategy for post-18 education and skills for the long-term. 

Finally, having rebranded in 2023, we’ll be wanting to raise our profile, and the profile of Alliance universities, across the sector, in parliament and beyond, with some exciting partnerships and campaigning work coming up in the new year. You can expect to see much more of us in 2024!

Have a fantastic break and a very happy new year! 

Festive greetings

Further reading