Following last summer's series of attacks on universities, the Commons Education Committee is looking at value for money in higher education, and the Treasury Committee has an inquiry on student loans.
Although the current funding system has increased the number of young students entering higher education, including from disadvantaged backgrounds, which is very much to be welcomed, it has also led to a catastrophic fall in the number of mature and part-time students, which is a source of grave concern.
At the same time, politicians of all stripes are realising that the harsh cuts the further education sector has suffered – between 2009 and 2015 colleges dealt with a 27 per cent real-term cut in funding – have had adverse consequences.
In the context of Brexit, problems with the skills system cannot be ignored. As the recent report from the Social Mobility Commission said, “whole tracts of our country feel left behind, because they are”. Some say that this social crisis led to the outcome of 2016’s referendum, arguing that those on the side of Remain were too comfortable with the idea of recruiting skills from the EU rather than providing workable options for local people.
The major review of funding across tertiary education, confirmed in the government’s recent industrial strategy White Paper, could be an opportunity to think radically about how we could do things better. If it is to come up with anything sensible though, it must move away from an outdated view of how tertiary education is organised.
In the White Paper, the government promised to “establish a technical education system that rivals the best in the world, to stand alongside our world-class higher education system”. This implies that technical and academic education are separate pathways. It does not reflect the real world.
The boundaries between colleges and universities have been blurring for some time: the majority of degrees taught by universities are vocational – just think of nursing, teaching, engineering, architecture, graphic design – while nearly 250 colleges offer higher education.
In terms of mode, colleges are rightly praised for working closely with employers but many universities also excel in employer-engagement and work-based learning. Modern universities in particular have developed “learning by doing” pedagogies where students learn by solving real-world problems in teams and practise their skills in both simulated environments and through work placements.
For students who prefer to learn while being employed, both universities and colleges now offer a wide range of apprenticeship programmes, including degree apprenticeships.
It is, however, perhaps most important that the review recognises that both academic and technical education can be delivered to the highest levels. For too long, technical education has been seen as somehow inferior to academic education – a fallback option for those who are struggling academically. In reality, many employers are happy to sponsor doctoral training for postgraduates who want to work in industry rather than academia – or even move seamlessly between the two.
In any event, thinking about education in terms of levels with an assumption that people should move in an entirely linear way – from level 1 to level 2 to level 3 and so on – is not always helpful. It harks back to the days of PSA, targets where the system measured how many people had achieved at each level, and to the early axe of austerity, which fell first on “Equivalent Level Qualifications” – people could no longer access funding to study a course if they had already achieved a qualification at that level.
In a world where it is estimated that people now entering the labour market will have as many as nine careers, this is surely not the right approach. Employers want people with the competencies for their occupation, with soft skills that enable them to work in teams and with the ability to think critically about what they are doing and suggest improvements and innovations.
Many people will study at both colleges and universities at different points in their life – and not always in a linear way. Employers will look to both colleges and universities for their training needs. The reviews must not create barriers between the further and higher education sectors and trade one off against the other, but ensure that both are adequately funded and that opportunities exist to move smoothly from one to the other.
Of course we cannot be naive. Education has to be paid for, most probably by a combination of the taxpayer, student and employer, and there has to be some system of rationing – but let’s ditch old hierarchies and think afresh about how we can make best use of our many excellent universities and colleges.
Quintin McKellar is the regulatory lead for the University Alliance and vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire.