Guest Leader: Get set for changes up ahead

The climate in which universities operate presents difficulties and opportunities. We must prepare for both, writes Ron Dearing

May 8, 2008

Recent trips to three universities last visited at the time of the Dearing Review brought home to me the scale and quality of what has been happening to universities. The general mood is positive, as reflected, for example, in annual reports looking to strong future investment - one institution is looking at a planned investment of £450 million. The promised 2009 review of student contributions lies ahead, and the one forecast I do not hear is that they will be reduced.

Although there were particular disappointments - on funding for part-time students and, notably, equivalent or lower qualifications - the outcome for higher education from the triennial funding round was at least as good as could have been expected.

Ronald Barnett's thesis that universities face an age of super-complexity, uncertainty and change has proved valid. But this has been a decade in which, so far, for most institutions, the pluses have outweighed the minuses. But to remind us of the downside, we have the Foreign Office's unexpected decision to end Commonwealth scholarships and cut Chevening scholarships.

With that astonishing minus, it is as well to be thinking through some other issues that may lie ahead. The demographics in the UK and more widely in the European Union give no comfort for numbers, with potential knock-on effects for the vigour of the competition for international students. This in turn poses questions on the sustainability of present levels of fees for such students, underlined by the Higher Education Policy Institute finding that a worrying proportion of overseas students say they get poor value for money.

The challenge for students from further education colleges is likely to grow as the foundation degree, underpinned by the new diplomas for 14 to 18-year-olds, gathers pace, backed by the Leitch skills agenda. Taking a ten-year view, the recently legislated potential power of colleges to award these degrees could become increasingly significant. For many institutions, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills launch of University Challenge, leading to 20 more small centres of higher education, will put increased pressure on numbers for existing campuses. Added together, these factors suggest challenging times for full-time undergraduate numbers.

Wherein lie the countervailing opportunities? One is in part-time places, which is central to the Leitch challenge to increase the proportion of the workforce with a level-four qualification, or better, from 29 per cent to at least 40 per cent by 2020. Since the US and Germany have achieved that level already, economic necessity points to the 40 per cent target being increased before long.

The economic importance of research and the changing needs of the Far East suggest that postgraduates could be an area of opportunity.

So much for the externals. Internally, the key to competitiveness may well be the quality of the learning experience, not just in sustaining overseas numbers but generally. Cardinal Newman was arguing the quality issue in his famed 1852 discourses, and just weeks ago the head of one of our major institutions was writing under the same banner.

The distinctive commitment at institutional level to building overseas partnerships during the past decade will prove a good investment. Policy towards part-timers, where institutional engagement varies very widely, will repay close attention. This will be a decade in which the increased commitment of institutions to local and regional communities will pay dividends.

We may well face climate change, but there is plenty we can do about it.

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