The transforming landscapes of higher education in the UK


The transforming landscapes of higher education in the UK

The ever-evolving post-Brexit landscape is changing the lives of EU-youths, students and graduates, all the while global economic pressures and geopolitical tensions have tangible effects on political and social institutions. Great Britain is a popular destination for Finnish students wanting to study abroad. How is this changing amidst social, economic and geopolitical challenges?

Before the UK left the EU, the Finnish Embassy in London welcomed interns from Finnish higher education institutions. In 2023, because of the new migration rules, interns at the Finnish Embassy have to be residents with a right to work in the UK, while having Finnish citizenship and adequate language skills. With a foothold in both countries, the three current interns at the Finnish Embassy in London are lucky to navigate and observe these transforming landscapes from the unique perspective of the Embassy. Ultimately, we are looking to answer the age-old question for young adults everywhere, but especially in the midst of a transformation of British higher education structures: what next?

The roads we took to study at university in the UK, through free movement in the EU, are now shut. Finnish and EU students who began their studies in the UK before 2021 were afforded the same rights, fees and loans as UK students. The ‘Home student’ tuition fee for each undergraduate year of study stood at £9,250 – a number which has been frozen by the government since 2017. EU students could take out a student loan to cover the entire cost of the fee. Now, however, EU youths wanting to move to the UK first need to pay visa and health insurance fees, approximately £500 each.[1] Once they begin their studies, they now pay ‘Overseas student’ fees which range from anything between £11,400-£50,000 a year depending on the university and course. If that was not enough, they do not have the possibility to take out a loan from the Student Loans Company. The number of Finnish students in the UK has declined sharply, most likely due to these new costs: while a total of 2,100 Finnish students studied in the UK in 2018, in 2021 only 1,315 did so.[2]

More broadly, ‘the higher education sector faces a looming crisis’, announced a September report by the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee. In its review of the Office for Students (OfS), an independent but publicly funded organisation regulating the higher education sector since 2017, the committee found that the OfS is ‘performing poorly’, and ‘is not trusted by students or universities’ in responding to acute financial pressure faced by higher education providers today.

‘Home student’ fees have been frozen since 2017 while the country has seen high levels of inflation. Consequently, compounded with little government funding of universities since 2012, many higher education institutions have deliberately raised their intake of overseas students to compensate for a lack of other income.[3] The severe House of Lords review found that the OfS does not have clear duties and responsibilities, that it is combative when responding to student issues and voices and lacks both real and perceived independence from the government.[4]

That universities and their staff have been struggling for the past years is no secret, especially to us interns. The University and College Union, (UCU) has been striking or partaking in other forms of industrial action regularly since 2018 over pay equality, workload and casualisation. Since April of this year, UCU’s marking and assessment boycott is still causing disturbances in student assessment and the completion of study. Though the boycott ended in September, large numbers of students are still waiting to receive marks. Thousands of students have finished university over the past summer without obtaining a degree, like the author of this newsletter.[5]

Even geopolitical tensions threaten to affect the British research system. A King’s College London report on the presence of Chinese researchers in the UK found that disruptions to research collaboration and student mobility between the two countries would be ‘highly damaging’ for the UK’s knowledge economy.[6] Chinese students not only pay a significant amount of Overseas fees to British universities, but Chinese doctoral students and researchers are an entrenched, key group contributing to the UK’s research system. Should geopolitical tensions harm these relationships, universities may struggle both financially and academically.


Transformation of the student finance system

The Lifelong Learning Bill, announced in September to be put into effect in 2025, presents a wide transformation of the student finance system in the UK. The bill will give adults in the UK access to loans, worth up to £37,000 in today’s fees, to be used flexibly during their working lives to upskill or retrain in full-time courses or individual modules. As part of this, the government launched a £5 million scheme to encourage universities to begin offering more flexible courses and individual modules of university degrees and higher technical qualifications. In-demand modules of higher technical qualifications include digital, health and science and construction. The bill thus represents a future of studying made more flexible to encourage gaining skills throughout one’s life, not just in early adulthood.[7]

Furthermore, though the fees for studying in the UK have multiplied for Finnish students, after which student numbers have consequently fallen, there may also be a positive development emerging. Postgraduate study, especially research, is typically funded by private organisations. Though it is still too soon to draw conclusions, statistics by Higher Education Student Data reveals that while between 2018 and 2021, the total number of Finnish students in the UK fell consistently and dramatically, the group least affected by this change has been postgraduate research students.[8] The future of student mobility in the UK may therefore emphasise postgraduate research work over undergraduate degrees.

What works?

Furthermore, and conveniently, recent Team Finland Knowledge events have dealt with youth, student and researcher mobility and wellbeing. The researchers’ and students’ diaspora societies from seven EU countries gathered at the residence of the Deputy Head of Mission to change ideas on how to support international students and researchers in the UK.  

A couple of weeks ago the deans of social sciences faculties from universities around Finland visited the Ambassador's residence. The agenda for the evening, in addition to meeting with their colleagues from British Universities, was to discuss the role of the social sciences in engineering social wellbeing. The comparative discussions on Finland and the UK discussed current crises, from student mental health to economic inequalities, and hypothesised on what may be next for the two countries. Moderated by Nancy Hey, Executive Director of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, the deans listened to and participated in two discussions. In the first, Juho Saari, Professor of Social and Health Policy and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tampere University, and Sir Geoff Mulgan, Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London, shared their thoughts on the topic of the evening and asked each other about potential solutions. The speakers discussed Finland’s global reputation as a utopian society and theorised on the role of AI in assisting wellbeing beyond the welfare state’s capabilities.

In the second discussion, Elina Kilpi-Jakonen, Associate Professor of Sociology and Academy Research Fellow at the Inequalities, Interventions and New Welfare State (INVEST) Flagship at the University of Turku, and Lindsey Macmillan, Professor of Economics and Founding Director of the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO) at University College London presented their recent projects and findings on education inequality. The audience learned that youths in both Finland and the UK face a high risk of loneliness and mental distress while economic transformations as well as new technologies at home and in education are increasing social inequalities. As Hey concluded, participants of Monday night’s reception could walk away with three imperatives: that we must work hard for the outcomes and results we care about; that there is need for multidisciplinary cooperation to take place both nationally and internationally; and that the decisions, policies and plans which will shape the wellbeing of future generations must be made now.

There is no time like the present. The youths of the future who may be looking to move to and from Finland and Great Britain can be comforted by having such committed researchers on their side. On behalf of the interns, when asking ourselves ‘what next?’, we are glad to have gained the experiences, skills and contacts during our short autumn season here to help us in our next chapter.

Meri Miettinen