Priorities for UK universities in navigating sector uncertainty

QS CEO Jessica Turner

By QS Quacquarelli Symonds CEO, Jessica Turner. 

This speech was delivered at The PIE Live Europe, where QS was the Official Insights Partner.

As a global enablement partner to higher education institutions in over 60 countries and with a team of 800 colleagues who are passionate about the impact of higher education, we see the challenges that universities are facing, and the resilience and innovation being shown in the face of uncertainty.  

We are blessed here in the UK with one of the best higher education sectors in the world. Despite the impacts of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, UK higher education has proved to be a powerful and resilient global brand.  

The UK is home to two out of the world’s top three universities and 17 of the world’s top 100 in the QS World University Rankings 2024. London – with 18 QS ranked universities and two in the global top 10 – takes the number one spot as the QS Best Student City globally. Our sector makes cities and university towns across the UK into a magnet for global talent – adding £42 billion to the economy. Though, there are many challenges facing the sector in 2024.

We see widespread financial uncertainty across UK universities, while the relief that international student fees have provided to mitigate unsustainable university economics is under threat. It is uncertain whether the current political class recognises the importance of universities and the need to cherish and fund this vital asset for the country in the face of increasing global competition for students, faculty and research.  

We face existential threats, too. Among them is the imperative to prepare graduates with the future skills they need in an AI-driven world. As always, higher education institutions and organisations in the UK must pull together and work in partnership with other countries as a globally-connected community. Now is the time for us to collectively innovate – to define and develop the university of the future and to redefine the central relevance that our universities have to our society. 

At QS, we see five immediate calls to action for university leaders in the UK: 

1. Accelerate internationalisation strategies for sustainable success 

Successful universities will be those that accelerate their internationalisation. At QS, we support universities in myriad ways to project their brand and academic strengths abroad; to connect with peer institutions and foster partnerships; to benchmark excellence; and to build sustainable pipelines of overseas students.   

As the British Council have long-observed, however, the demand for British university qualifications studied in an international student’s home country far exceeds the strength of in-bound study to the UK. Recently, we have been focusing on Trans-National Education (TNE), supporting UK universities to find and form equitable and sustainable partnerships that are truly beneficial to the students and faculty of both institutions as well as the local communities and economies they serve.  

India’s National Education Policy for 2030 opens up the opportunity to build global campuses, conduct research and locate operations in the region. QS has a long history of operating in India, with 30% of our global team located there, deep relationships with Indian universities and government and visibility on our digital assets from over nine million Indian students annually.  

With our strategic and operational expertise, we support universities across the Global North to operate in India, and in February 2024, we hosted 43 university Vice Chancellors and Presidents among the delegates at the QS India Summit in Chennai on the topic of “Unleashing the Potential of Partnerships and Collaboration in Indian Higher Education”.     

2. Invest in your reputation in a diverse set of source markets 

Successful universities have resilience at the heart of their international recruitment strategy – investing in your reputation in source markets, optimising pricing, connecting with a diverse set of source markets, tailoring your portfolio to deliver on student outcomes and so much more. 

We see hundreds of universities that we work with around the world solving these challenges with a growing understanding that academic reputation is critical to effective long-term recruitment strategies.  

3. Amplify your sustainability messages for prospective students 

Sustainability remains high on the agenda for universities, but there’s a balance. 41% of students tell us that the sustainability record of an institution plays an important part of their choice of where to study (QS International Student Survey 2024).  

UK universities performed well in the recent QS Sustainability Rankings, with The University of Manchester ranking third globally, Imperial College London in sixth place – both leading the pack of 19 UK universities in the top 50.  

Partnerships which bring scale, improve outcomes and deliver innovation are a key tool as universities rethink how they need to operate for the longer term. At QS, we are constantly evolving the way we partner to support the long-term sustainability of the brilliant institutions we work with.  

4. Proactively embrace AI across your institution 

AI readiness needs to be proactively embraced across the institution. The university of the future will have a clear strategy in utilising AI throughout its teaching, research, outreach and operations, and the institutions most strategically utilising AI are not those who have been the world-class universities of previous decades.  

We have a digital maturity and AI readiness framework which we are consulting with across the sector to help provide paths and roadmaps and would love to engage with any institutions thinking this through.  

5. Continue to focus on skills and employment outcomes 

Clear and transparent employability outcomes provide students with the reason to invest in higher education while having the time of their lives. Both international and domestic students want to know how they will be prepared for the future job market, something that is particularly important with increasingly available alternative paths to gaining those skills.  

Supporting students to achieve employment success is at the heart of our mission at QS. We recently acquired a pioneering career navigation platform, 1Mentor, to provide career and skills insight for the students we support. 1Mentor’s AI tools identify high-growth jobs and the required skills for success for students with recommendations to address skills gaps, and helps institutions strengthen their curricula and course portfolios to match employer needs.

I hope that’s food for thought and that these five actions can help steer a path through the uncertainty our sector faces in 2024 and beyond.  

We are proud to be enabling so many of the universities in London, across the UK and across the world to achieve their global ambitions – building their reputation, finding and enrolling the right students, engaging global partners, improving employability outcomes and delivering sustainably.

Where next for QS? 

You can connect with QS at summits and conferences around the world. In Europe, you can meet with us at BUILA’s Annual Conference or join us for QS Higher Ed Summit: Europe in July. For the full list, read our handy key dates article.

Miss our QS Insights session at The PIE Live?

In response to the popularity of our session at The PIE Live Europe, we are hosting a webinar titled: Thriving, not surviving: A data-led approach to student recruitment resilience.

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