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In Conversation with… Dr Alexis Brown

19 July 2022

The latest episode of our In Conversation mini-series stars Dr Alexis Brown, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute. She shares her thoughts on what the Higher Education sector’s current challenges are, part-time and lifelong learning opportunities, and student wellbeing, as well as her own experiences of studying in the US and the UK.

Hosted by Jenny Shaw, ‘Accommodation Matters: In Conversation’ is a 3-episode podcast mini-series, showcasing in-depth discussions with 3 Higher Education sector experts about their experiences, sector insights, and what they anticipate for the future.

Listen through your preferred podcast platform, or below through our Podbean channel:


Episode transcript: ‘In Conversation with Dr Alexis Brown’

Jenny Shaw: Alexis, you’ve been working in Higher Education Policy for over two years, first with the Russell Group and now with HEPI. Of course, you started with the Russell Group, and we almost straightaway hit the pandemic. Tell me a little bit about the last two years and what you’ve been focusing on.

Alexis: When I first joined the Russell Group, I was supposed to be working on just fees and funding issues, but then Covid hit. Suddenly, everything was up in the air. We weren’t just talking about whether the fee was going to be cut, we were thinking about whether the sector was going to face an unprecedented crisis, really – especially if international students hadn’t showed up. That was in some ways a terrifying time, but also a really exciting one, because it allowed us to think outside the box in a way that we hadn’t been able to do and hadn’t been forced to do prior to that.

That was what a lot of my time at the Russell Group was spent on: these broader financial sustainability questions, as well as a lot of the practical stuff around – how do you lock down a campus? What do you do with the lab animals? All this stuff that prior to Covid, we never would have thought about, let alone do. That was fascinating as an experience, and now at HEPI, I have the great privilege of just being able to examine what some of the most pressing topics in the sector are. We’re able to, I think, say things as an independent organisation that it can be harder for others in the sector to talk about.

One of my first reports was on who owns lecture recordings, especially coming out of the pandemic, there was a wealth of recorded material that had been recorded during lockdown but it wasn’t always clear who owned that. Another recent report was on national security issues as they relate to research. This is a topic that I think is going to continue to be increasingly important over the coming years, particularly as geopolitical shifts continue to occur.

Also, [at the time of recording] we’re writing up our student academic experience survey, which has been going for something like 15 years now, and is wonderful because it gets under the skin of what students are thinking and how they’re experiencing their degrees as they experience them.

Jenny: We’re all very excited for that as we are every year. One of the things that I’ve always thought HEPI does really well is bring issues to the fore bring debates to the fore. It’s quite a good barometer of what’s topical and what’s going to be topical in the future for universities, and by extension for accommodation as well. What do you think is ahead for universities in the next two years?

Alexis: I think we’re at a really interesting time in the sector right now, because we’re facing a lot of challenges. There are some really interesting opportunities emerging as well, most immediately, the cost-of-living crisis is going to hit the sector, just like it hits every other sector, just like it hits individual people. Imagine the heating bill for a whole campus.

This is coming at a time when inflation has already been eroding the real term value of the tuition fee, basically, since it was tripled in 2012. I think it’s worth something like 15% less than it was then. That was before inflation rose this year. That’s going to create, I think, a lot of financial challenges for institutions.

There are also really exciting things happening in the sector as well. I think the lifelong loans entitlement has the potential to really open up higher education to those who maybe haven’t had the opportunity to take advantage of it yet, such as more mature learners, people who might need to reskill later on in life.

You also see new campuses opening up in higher education cold spots, like the new Anglia Ruskin Peterborough campus. That’s really exciting. Broadly, I think, even though the sector faces challenges, it’s an extremely resilient and very creative sector. I think we can feel really confident moving forward into the next years, even though there are going to be some challenges.

Jenny: Yes, it’s interesting what you say about the new campuses. That’s something that has been talked about for, or to my knowledge for many years, 15 years or more, but really seems to be coming to fruition now. Is that something we might see more of?

Alexis: I hope so. I think that particularly for mature and part-time learners, they’re not always able to move across the country to go to a different institution that’s not near to where they live already. They might have families, they might have other caring responsibilities, that mean they can’t just pick up and move. Having more local universities in those existing cold spots, I think can help ameliorate that issue. I do hope that that kind of trend continues over the coming years, because there’s a lot of potential there to actualise the government’s own ambitions around creating more modularised, bite-size reskilling throughout a person’s life.

Jenny: Will that come alongside with the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE)?

Alexis: I hope so, yes. I think there’s still a lot of detail to be decided on the LLE. I think that ideally, the LLE will be able to help work hand-in-hand with some of those institutions to create the learning opportunities that those students need.

Jenny: You talked as well about cost of living, and also the erosion of the tuition fee in real terms, although I imagine it still feels quite high for students themselves. It does paint a picture of a growing financial pinch for institutions. One of the things that I’ve been hearing recently is particularly from accommodation teams in universities is, well, there’s a bit of a feeling that we should be bringing in a surplus and helping to balance the books there. Is that something you’re aware of?

Alexis: Yes, I think the problem– there are several issues with the cost-of-living crisis, and also just the general erosion of the fee value now that it’s been frozen for another few years.

One is that it’s going to make domestic teaching into a loss-making activity. We already know that research is a loss-making activity for universities, it only gets around, say 7% of full economic costing, that additional funding has to be made up and cross-subsidised through international students for the most part. I worry, I guess moving in a direction where that’s going to become the case for domestic teaching as well.

I think this is already the case to a certain extent in Scotland, where the universities are even lower than it is in England. That is maybe troubling for a couple of different reasons, in part because this income stream from international students might not be as stable as we think it is. I think, because it was so resilient during Covid, we’ve maybe been lulled into a slight false sense of security and thinking it’s more stable than it actually is. Say, if there were to be geopolitical shifts, for example, if our relationship with China deteriorated, that would be very bad news for UK-Chi, the more and more dependent we become upon those kinds of income streams.

I think there’s another issue there, in that we’re in the middle of a massive demographic uplift in the number of 18-year-olds, we’re going to see about a 25% increase in the number of 18-year-olds between 2020 and 2030. This is going to make demand skyrocket precisely at the time when teaching domestic students has become a loss-making activity. That I think just creates all the wrong incentives, particularly if that reliance on international students grows, that population also tends to be more geared towards three-year traditional degrees.

Whereas I think where government wants to move and the best way also to include those learners that haven’t yet gotten to take advantage of HE that is more of a modular part time, less traditional trajectory. Universities will have to figure out how they balance those two things. I think that that could be quite difficult. I think a lot of the demand for that more modularised, part-time learning is as yet untested. There’s just a lot more work that needs to be done that hasn’t been tested on a larger scale yet. There are a lot of uncertainties there.

Jenny: Interesting times then for universities. You’ve talked about international students, and particularly the China market. What are the other emerging markets that you’re seeing at the moment? I think it’s quite well-known that there’s a quite sharp increased demand from India. What are the other countries that are looking to the UK for the future?

Alexis: If I’m remembering right, from the latest UCAS data this year, I think the number of Nigerian applicants doubled this year. That also has coincided perhaps unsurprisingly with a real reduction in EU students. As much as China continues to grow, India continues to grow, Nigeria really continues to grow, we have also seen dramatic downturn in the number of EU students we’re getting as well.

Jenny: Yes, it’s interesting because there’s a level at which we talk about the numbers and we talk about it in big pictures. Also, I think particularly in accommodation, you have to look at the individuals as well and how well are we geared up to understand the needs of, for example Nigerian students and students from other parts of the world do we have that cultural knowledge, that cultural competency to understand what would make a good experience for them and how they would fit with that student community?

Alexis: That’s such a good point. I think international students finding ways to accommodate them and understand their needs is also an issue of inclusion and diversity on campus as well. A lot of campus diversity comes from international students. As institutions, we have a real obligation to understand where those students are coming from and what their needs are.

Jenny: Yes, absolutely. Can I ask you, Alexis, what brought you into higher education policy? What brought you in to this world?

Alexis: I came to the UK as a grad student in 2012. I’ve worked as a researcher, a lecturer. I’ve worked in student welfare, in professional services. I suppose what drew me to policy specifically was that I wanted to understand how everything worked, why it worked the way that it did, how it could work better. I found the best way to do that was in policy, in getting this bigger picture of the sector and how it also intersected with government and the public and all these other different stakeholders.

Jenny: I can absolutely relate to that. How does it all work? How does it fit together? You mentioned working in welfare. I noticed that when you were a post-grad student at Oxford, you were a welfare Dean for your college – very much a residential life-type role. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you were doing at Oxford?

Alexis: I was what’s called a Welfare Dean and that was living in the college, looking after students, being on call, things like that, offering induction, welfare chats for students who needed it as well. That could range all the way from quite minor, slap-on-the-wrist disciplinary things to quite serious welfare issues as well. I think something I learned from that experience was that university can be a really difficult time for students. They’re away from home, maybe for the first time, they have lots of new freedoms, but they’re also under a lot of new pressure and sometimes that difficulty and those difficulties can be tied up in accommodation.

Jenny: Is there anything that surprised you about the issues that you were hearing from students at that time?

Alexis: I think maybe what surprised me was how universal some of the issues were to everyone. When you are going through university by yourself, you think that, “Oh, I’m the only person who’s having these anxieties, these struggles I’m the only one who feels like they don’t belong here,” but actually when you are the person that every single one of those students is speaking to you realise that, “Oh gosh, everyone is going through this. Everyone has times when they doubt themselves and are struggling with something, whether it’s academic or social.” Those kinds of fears and anxieties crop up I think at some point during every student’s life.

Jenny: Do you think students do feel like they’re the only ones going through these issues?

Alexis: I think they can sometimes. That was in part why HEPI doing its student academic experience survey again this year. For the first time, we asked questions specifically about loneliness, precisely because we wanted to get a better sense of how prevalent some of these feelings were. I wish there was a way if I was still in a welfare role, I would tell them that they don’t need to because they’re not, and lots of people are going through the same thing.

Jenny: Of course, you did your undergraduate degree in the United States, which is where you’re from. I wonder if you’ve got any reflections on the similarities and differences between the university sector and student experience in the US and the UK because culturally quite different.

Alexis: Very different. First point of comparison roommates, absolutely barbaric that they make undergraduate students share a room in dormitories. Even at the time, I was like, “This is weird. I don’t know how I feel about this.” Then I moved to the UK and everyone’s like, “That’s outrageous. They made you live with someone else in the same room?” I was like, “Yes, it is outrageous, isn’t it? I knew it was even at the time.” I don’t know why I’ve always wanted to look into why this is a thing and how it became a thing totally unnecessary, but culturally extremely ingrained in the US for whatever reason.

There are lots of differences. You’ll know that the US system is hyper-privatised. My gosh, if you think student debt in the UK is bad you do not want to go to America. That debt does not get written off after 30 years either. Other similarities and differences, frat and sorority culture.

Jenny: That’s a bit of a mystery to most people in the UK.

Alexis: It does come to the UK, but only through popular culture. I remember telling an old colleague of mine, what was Wisconsin like? “Well, it was a very frat sorority-heavy culture.” She’s like, “Were there actual frat parties?” I was like, “Yes.” She’s like “What? With the red solo cups?” I was like, “Well, yes, there were.” She was like, “No, come on. I thought that was just in the movies.” I can tell you it does actually exist. The stuff in the movies might be slightly glamorised, but it is based on real fact. I’m not sure you’re missing anything really by not having that here, you can maybe just keep it on screen.

Jenny: It is very interesting though, isn’t it because I think my knowledge of fraternity and sorority is from the media. I think my kids know more about it than I do, to be honest, but it does seem to take that place of community and community building. I know that there is quite a strong emphasis on ResLife within student accommodation, but the fraternities and sororities that becomes your community, doesn’t it?

Alexis: Yes. It really depends on what kind of university you’re going to in the US and that culture, I think differs dramatically based on your institution, but for many people, yes. That community is absolutely the draw to get into those frats and sororities. You want that brotherhood or sisterhood. In terms of a universal people are really hungering for that kind of community, especially first few years of university. I don’t think that’s any different than it is in the UK. It just maybe manifests in a slightly different way.

Jenny: Quite a culturally different manifestation of it. There has been a bit of a trend over the last few years of the UK, looking to the US sector for guidance on that residential life and how to build that community. I’ve also heard the reflection that it is quite a lot more assertive in the US. You will be a part of it, whereas, in the UK, I think we make it a bit less assertive about bringing people into those opportunities. I don’t know what your thoughts are on that having experienced both.

Alexis: I don’t think you need to look to the US on this. I’m not sure there’s an especially strong example of how good community building works in the us that you could necessarily even import to the UK for the reasons you describe.

You also have to understand that culturally things like the pub don’t exist for undergraduates in the US because the drinking age is 21. You have what can become a quite heavy, underground drinking culture in a way that I think is much more toxic than what you have in the UK where you can just go out to the pub after a seminar and have a nice chat with the people who were just in class with you and do that. I think that is really lovely and something that is actually quite unique to the UK. I think you can capitalise on the strengths that already exist culturally here.

Jenny: It is always a bit of a hiding to nothing, but I do want to ask you about your predictions for the future or thoughts about the future maybe is a better way to put it for universities. What can we expect to see over the next couple of years in higher education policy and how’s that going to affect universities?

Alexis: We’ve already spoken a little bit about the Lifelong Loans Entitlement, but I think depending on how ambitious and radically that is implemented, that has the potential to completely change how student finance works in this country.

If every student was given £37,000 to use throughout their lives, that will really be a game-changer, not just for how students access higher education, but also how institutions do say financial planning. Right now, it’s really simple. When you get the three-year degrees, you get the money directly from the student loan company. It’s very, very simple.

It makes it a lot easier to plan because you can very easily predict what your income and student body is going to look like every year. If you have this more piecemeal modularised learning that introduces a huge degree of uncertainty into how universities plan financially.

It’s looking like there’s going to potentially be greater involvement from employers directly in how higher education works, how course design works. Something I thought was really telling was the recent short course trials that the Office for Students (OfS) ran this year where universities could bid for funding to create a new modularised course.

In order to get that funding, they had to get letters from three employers, including two that said they would directly recruit from the new course. That I think was interesting in how it posited a really direct relationship between employers and course design within universities.

I think maybe that says a lot about what direction we might be going in terms of employers having a more direct involvement in course design and in education more broadly. I also think we’re going to see many, many more degree apprenticeships over the next couple years and longer. I think there’s a lot of student demand for them.

I think there’s a lot of government support for them. I think they’re a really attractive option for students who want to start getting paid while they’re studying. I think that’s great. I think that’s really exciting.

Jenny: I find it really interesting because having worked in several universities in the past, it will require quite a different way of planning, a very high degree of flexibility. I think there’s quite a lot of things here that aren’t, they’re not completely new because we’ve had a foundation degree which needed a lot of employer involvement. We’ve had 10 to 15 years ago a lot of universities had centres for lifelong learning, but they were quite separate from the main undergraduate teaching postgraduate and research and so on.

Whereas this maybe suggests something that has to fit better with a mainstream approach, but it does sound like potentially opening up opportunities to a wider range of people. We have seen that really huge drop off in mature and part-time learners, haven’t we over the last few years?

Alexis: I think the government’s partially hoping that move towards more modular learning and that later in life learning will help incentivise more of that part-time learning later in life too.

Jenny: Just to put you on the spot, what do you think this might mean in terms of student accommodation?

Alexis: I guess in part, because say if we are having more universities in cold spots, if we’re having more part-time mature learners who are probably going to live at home, that is, I guess, bad news because they won’t necessarily need accommodation in the same way that 18-year-olds moving across the country will.

I would say going back to what we’ve been talking about in terms of international students, they’re always going to need more accommodation. The sector’s going to be growing, if anything increasingly more reliant on that and on keeping those students happy. There’s a huge, huge role for accommodation to play in that.

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