UKCGE Position on Developments in the UK Higher Education Sector

This article outlines the UKCGE’s position on recent developments in the Higher Education sector. 

UKCGE Position on Developments in the UK Higher Education Sector

The Higher Education sector is currently going through a period of significant and rapid change. 2018 will see the creation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), while the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 brings with it a new regulator for England – the Office for Students (OfS). This month at the HEFCE annual conference, Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities and Science, announced the new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), while the UK-wide Standing Committee on Quality Assessment recently began a consultation on the proposed changes to the UK Quality Code. Additionally, in England, there are consultations on the workings of risk-based regulation of HE and on the choice of an independent quality assurance body amongst other matters – with informal intelligence indicating the QAA is in a strong position to be appointed to this role.

Each of these changes will have, both directly and indirectly, significant and wide-ranging implications for the postgraduate education sector both in England and the rest of the UK. The UK Council for Graduate Education will continue to make the point that safeguarding the interests of the 500,000 postgraduate education students, who make up over 20% of the UK Higher Education student population, remains crucial.

Below we set out our initial thoughts and position on the changes mentioned above.


The UK Council for Graduate Education looks forward with interest to the introduction of the OfS in January 2018 and the UKRI in April 2018, though we await further clarity about the role and impact each will have on the postgraduate sector.

We do have some limited insight into the role UKRI will play vis-a-vis research students, who will come under the UKRI’s thematic workstream of talent and skills”. However, we don’t yet know what will be done by the individual Research Councils and what by UKRI nor what the role of the new designated quality body will be in respect to research students.

The Council is concerned this dual responsibility approach may have a negative impact on both research students and those who support them, especially in England. Without the holistic overview previously provided by QAA and the Research Councils, it would be easy for these early career researchers to fall between the cracks.

To mitigate these risks, the Council is committed to doing all it can to develop the same good working relationship with UKRI that it has enjoyed with the separate Research Councils.

We don’t yet know is if will be possible to have the same kind of meaningful relationship with OfS that we have had with QAA and HEFCE, since as it has been emphasised that OfS is a regulatory body only. We will proactively monitor for possibilities to engage with OfS.


The Council notes with interest the announcement of the new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), and the revamped Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) stream, and we are encouraged to hear the Minister’s desire for the framework to drive high-performance in the application and translation of academic knowledge in non-academic contexts.

While there is a lack of clarity on the detail of the framework, and the true impact on research is unknown, we will be expressing our desire for the new framework to encompass arts & humanities and social science focused institutions as well as STEMM and to not further marginalise research with cultural and social, rather than economic, outcomes.

We look forward to participating in the Research England-led consultation on KEF in the near future.


The UKCGE welcomes the consultation on the proposed changes to the UK Quality Code by the QAA’s Standing Committee on Quality Assessment and encourage members to share their view.

In the light of concern in both European and International circles about changes to QA in England — changes made all the more stark by the continuing divergence in approaches amongst the devolved nations – we will support changes to the Code that enable it to be used in the very different approaches to quality within the four nations, while maintaining the UK’s world-leading reputation for quality in Higher Education, but not changes which make the code so generic that it becomes meaningless.

In particular, with regard to research students, the Council feels that the range of indicators of good practice that sit beneath the statement of overarching expectation in Chapter B11 are very helpful in allowing institutions to think about their provision and engage in the process of enhancing their practice. We would be very disappointed to see these disappear from the QC. Equally, we value the Doctoral and Masters Degree Characteristics statements and would support a continuing high profile for these documents, which are already highly accessible to potential students and employers as well as universities.

The abolition of the regular QAA institutional HE reviews in England could be viewed as a risk for research degree programmes. However, these will not completely disappear below the radar, as the annual reports on quality assessment mechanisms and enhancement plans which now have grown to go to governing bodies for approval, will have to include research students. While there is some concern in the sector about maintaining delineation between governance and academic matters, the Council hopes the new approach will ensure that institutions come up with practical plans for periodic risk-based quality assessment of research degree programmes.


The inclusion of postgraduate taught programmes in TEF now looks some way off, as establishing a subject-based exercise for undergraduate programmes is going to be time consuming and will be piloted first. Meanwhile NatCen and the Warwick Institute for Employment Research continue to work on designing a new postgraduate taught survey.

UKCGE welcomes this development but hopes the survey will primarily be of use to the sector in improving practice rather than just being fodder for league tables.


With so many changes happening, and the rapid pace of reform, the UK Council for Graduate Education continues to have an essential role in helping the sector navigate this new world. We have long-standing expertise in ensuring that postgraduate education programmes continue to flourish in the UK.

With a membership made up of 95% of UK HEIs, and through our various national awards, Working Groups, and Special Interest Networks, we are well positioned to offer events and other resources for sharing good practice, developing new practice and showcasing to the world what excellence in postgraduate programmes looks like.

To that end, the Council is planning a national event to allow the sector to take stock of developments, in terms of the quality of research degree provision, and provide a further opportunity to formulate sector input for consultations.

We look forward to working with the various new agencies to further help support excellence in postgraduate education.