PA Consulting Unity leads the way to diversity

Unity leads the way to diversity


The UK needs to treat the full breadth of tertiary education as an open ecosystem, write Paul Woodgates and Mike Boxall

The recent political weaponisation of tuition fees and student loans in the UK has triggered critical scrutiny of the costs, returns and even the relevance of going to university. That, in turn, has opened up wider questions around the workings of the country’s fragmented post-school education system.

The government’s recently-announced review of the economics of higher education, further education and vocational training presents the opportunity to develop a more comprehensive approach to the full range of tertiary education. This should start with a realisation that equating higher education with a full-time univer­sity experience for school-leavers – as ministers and others are prone to do – misses the explosion in the possibilities of, and need for, higher-level learning throughout life. The rapidly expanding alternatives to traditional university pro­grammes range from apprenticeships to Moocs, and preferences stretch from learning-while-earning to in-career pro­fessional development. 

The tendency has been to regard the newcomers to this system as direct competitors and threats to the university establishment. In fact, they represent massive extensions to the choices avail­able. National regulatory and funding policies, while purporting to promote learner choice, have, in practice, protected the established university model and constrained the alternatives. This has created an entrenched hierarchy of educational pathways, with minimal mobility through and between them.

These divisions are exacerbated by prioritisation of “academic excellence” over “vocational skills”: something not seen, for example, in Germany, the Neth­erlands or Denmark. Successive UK governments have responded to this disparity by promoting university status and title for almost all providers of higher-level learning. This has confused percep­tions of the university brand and distorted the missions both of “alternative” provid­ers and established universities. At the same time, a rigid regulatory and funding system has constrained attempts by innovative providers to develop new approaches that cut across the systems.

The UK needs to treat the full breadth of tertiary education as an open ecosystem, and then to establish a single, comprehensive policy and funding infra­structure that empowers learners and encourages innovation. This should start with merging the legacy mix of learner funding schemes into a single framework of loan-backed “personal learning accounts”. These should incorporate current higher education fee loans, further education loans, career develop­ment loans and maintenance loans.

Taxpayer support should be focused on the public benefits of tertiary educa­tion, through provision that addresses social inclusion and local and sectoral workforce development needs. It can also encourage entry to careers such as teaching, nursing, policing and social care. This might extend to assuring minimum levels of educational provision in economically deprived areas, as part of regional or city deal programmes.

Another important element in the policy should be to encourage employers to invest in workforce learning and skills development. This could be done, for example, by expanding the apprentice­ship levy scheme (via which large firms contribute to the cost of providing apprenticeships), through tax incentives for in-house education and training, or by topping up the personal learning accounts of key staff.

This should be underpinned by unify­ing the tertiary education regulatory and policy regime within a single oversight body, as is starting to happen in Scotland and Wales. This could then focus on recognising and assuring standards and probity across different learning provid­ers, products and outcomes, rather than trying to direct or second-guess delivery models or the content of provision.

This would establish a genuinely learner-driven system for higher-level tertiary education. Funding through personal learning accounts, augmented by individual, employer and public top-ups, would create viable markets for a more diverse range of provision. Providers would be enabled and challenged to differentiate their offers within a more open market. It would also encourage innovative cross-system partnerships such as Coventry University’s national network of locally engaged tertiary-level centres and the local learning “family” of tertiary-level institutions developed by London South Bank University.

This would create more direct and transparent connections between payments for services and benefits received, and a system that is more valued and valuable.

Paul Woodgates is head of higher education and  Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting, respectively. This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in Times Higher Education in November 2017.

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