Open all hours for the masses

October 17, 1997

Tessa Blackstone outlines her vision of a transformed higher education system

Slowly, but relentlessly, the predominant view of education as the preparation of young people for adult life is being replaced. What is emerging instead is a concept of education as an experience that never ends but continues throughout our lives. This is a more dramatic change than it at first appears.

For 100 years, education has been focused on children, adolescents and a minority of young adults. It has had a clear beginning in early childhood and a clear end, though the cut-off date has varied according to class, gender and ability. It has been institutionalised in schools, colleges and universities and the task of education has largely been in the hands of trained professionals.

But a job and a career for life can no longer be assumed. Discontinuities at work and at home are now common. Serial employment, based on short-term contracts, has started to replace the permanent career, requiring the ability to adjust to new work structures and to enrol for further education to ease the process.

Education systems in many countries are responding to these changes. The conventional stereotype of the student as an 18-year-old male, straight from school and studying full-time with no involvement in the labour market, is out of date. In the UK there has been a disproportionate increase in the number of applications for an undergraduate place from mature men and women. Between 1987 and 1992 applications from people over 21 increased by 215 per cent, whereas applications from those under 21 increased by only 66 per cent. Over half of all students now are over 21. Many older students study part-time, combining jobs and courses. By 1993 one-third of all enrolments were part-time.

Many commentators are now predicting a slowdown in further growth in higher education from school-leaver entrants. The proportion of school-leavers with two A levels entering university or college has virtually reached saturation point. Nearly all young people who manage to stick it out at school and get two A-level passes get a place somewhere. It seems reasonable to assume that a good part of the further growth of universities will be to provide for adults returning to study some years after leaving school. Who will these adults be?

An analysis of the continuing differences in access for 18-year-olds from different social backgrounds is revealing. Participation in higher education is still considerably higher among the children of professional and managerial groups. Two-thirds of those offered places in the old universities were from social classes I and II in 1992 and 55 per cent of those offered places in the new universities came from similar backgrounds. However, an examination of trends over time does reveal some catching-up by young people whose parents are in manual or clerical jobs. Between 1985 and 1992 in the old universities the participation rate for young people from social class IV and V increased the fastest, followed by those from social class III N (non-manual) and III M (manual). The slowest growth was in the professional managerial groups. It is also noteworthy that participation rates for the children of manual workers are higher in the new universities than the old. Yet in spite of these relative increases, the proportion of young people entering universities whose parents are manual workers is still much lower than for their middle-class peers. If trends continue, the fastest growth in 18-year-old participation will come from these under-represented groups.

There is also scope for growth in the demand for places from older men and women from lower-middle and working-class backgrounds who missed out earlier in life. Some will aspire to higher education as a route to promotion into lower and middle-level management positions in the service sector where they are already employed. Others will wish to escape from routine manual jobs in manufacturing or service sectors, where job prospects are poor and opportunities for promotion limited. Many will be aiming for vocational qualifications to help them in the labour market. Such courses - making up a growing part of higher education - will range widely, from catering to computer applications to the care of the elderly.

Subjects such as pure science and mathematics will decline in numerical importance. Opportunities for lifelong learning in these subjects must be maintained. But, given the poor take-up of science places by 18-year-olds, those seeking to upgrade their knowledge in the sciences will also be a minority. Conventional wisdom has it that the lack of people coming forward to study science, mathematics and engineering is a matter for concern. Those concerns are, however, misplaced. Education in science and engineering at higher levels is very expensive and the number of jobs available for graduates in these fields relatively small. The old Soviet Union trained large numbers of scientists, many of whom ended up in unproductive work in research institutions, which are now collapsing as the vast public subsidies that sustained them vanish. Advanced economies need top-class scientists and engineers, but only in small numbers. Both cost constraints and the shift towards lifelong education will mean the proportion of people studying science in universities will go on declining. Hand-wringing about this will be out of place.

Technological change is likely to be even more important in bringing about the movement of education out of institutions and into individual homes. Surfing the superhighway can be translated into pursuing a course at the virtual university on the Internet, which could eventually reduce the need for institutional facilities such as classrooms and libraries. Looking up a definition or following a link to more material can be just a mouse click away. It will surely not be long before hundreds of courses are developed for the Internet: space can be rented from Pounds 40. The courses have the advantage of being available at any time, so that the student can study when he or she wishes rather than at the hours dictated by institutional timetables.

There are about 30 million Internet users, and around one million in the UK. It is predicted that by 2000 there will be 750 million account holders. In the 1970s Ivan Illich wrote a book, Deschooling Society, that advocated the break-up of schools and colleges and the creation of new forms of learning in the home, the workplace and the community. At the time Illich's idealistic blueprint seemed unlikely to materialise. Today it looks distinctly possible, at least for people over 16. Illich quotes Fidel Castro, who predicted that the time would come when all Cuban universities could be closed with the deschooling of society. This looks a little less far-fetched than it did at the time.

Such a transformation of higher education raises important policy questions. HE costs about Pounds 7.5 billion a year in the UK. Just before the second world war there were 50,000 students. Today there are about 750,000, or nearly 1,500,000 if part-timers, postgraduates and overseas students are included.

But the debate about expansion still centres too much on whether more school-leavers should be admitted to first degree courses. Various organisations, including the Confederation of British Industry and the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, are calling for a 40 per cent target of young people graduating by 2000 and 50 per cent or above a little later. However, it is estimated that young people already have a 60 per cent chance of going to university at some time in their life.

The question that is rarely asked is whether there are advantages in some people starting a course in their thirties rather than in their teens. Should we be relentlessly continuing the expansion of the number of 18-year-olds going into conventional forms of higher education? Would it instead be better if more of them delayed study at first degree level until later? Can we motivate half or more of all young people between 16 and 19 to do the necessary preparatory study for a degree at today's standards? If lifelong learning is to become a reality individuals should be able to decide when to come in and out of it. And policymakers need to consider whether to encourage more provision immediately on leaving school, or more later on.

Lifelong education puts a premium on universities being accessible throughout the year to allow people to study when they are not working. The university of the 21st century will probably be open for students for 50 weeks a year. Traditional academics, concerned about their research, need not be frightened by this. It does not imply that everyone is teaching for 50 weeks of the year. What it does mean is that buildings and plant are more intensively used and that different groups of teachers are working at different times. For example, the year might be divided into five ten-week teaching blocks, in which staff are committed to teaching during three of these blocks.

Universities of the future also seem likely to employ a wider range of people. The traditional full-time academic, pursuing research at the same time as teaching, will probably be supplemented by people whose teaching is experience rather than research-based. Just as barristers contribute part-time teaching to law degrees, so may television producers to media courses, data system specialists to courses on computing, or museum curators to art history degrees. Patterns of employment are undergoing profound changes and however great the resistance may be, universities cannot expect to be immune from them.

Combining professional or business positions with some higher education teaching will be attractive to some. If this occurs there will be a de-institutionalisation of staffing structures in which many types of contract are held by those teaching in higher education. Government pressure to keep costs down as the system expands will also make this more likely. Full-time academics teaching relatively few hours a week have high overheads and while their pay may be deplorably low they are not cheap in other ways.

These changes will pose enormous problems for the management of higher education institutions, which will need to be far more flexible. Considerable leadership skills will be needed to bring in the changes without demoralisation. Questions of maintaining quality will arise. New forms of learning on the information superhighway probably pose the most difficult problems of validation and monitoring for quality. While courses have a clear institutional base it is easier to get a view about standards and quality. On the Internet, particularly if courses multiply rapidly, students, employers and institutions may face a bewildering choice and little guidance about which course is best.

One thing is certain. We must accept that higher education provision will increasingly be both "outsourced" and on a global basis, and adjust what we do accordingly.

Baroness Blackstone is minister of state for education and employment in the House of Lords. The article is made up of edited extracts from an essay in The State of the Nation:The Political Legacy of Aneurin Bevan, ed. Geoffrey Goodman, Victor Gollancz, Pounds 20.

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