Under-exploited assets

November 4, 1994

As we head for the "knowledge society" of the 21st century, British universities seem only half awake, argues Sir Geoffrey Holland.

The National Advisory Council on Education and Training Targets is reviewing its first eight targets: four foundation targets and four lifetime targets. The council has issued a consultative document and invited comments on proposals. I wonder how many of those who work in universities have seen the document, commented on it or even (ignoble thought) know what the eight existing targets are. Some, certainly. Perhaps more than I think, particularly in the "new universities". But my sneaking suspicion is that the majority of those in higher education will look blank.

Strange that they should, because higher education is the great, largely unknown and certainly under-exploited resource in contributing to economic competitiveness. Many outside higher education do not know the capacity or potential of that resource or how to get at it. Equally, those inside do not know how best to connect with the world outside. It is much more than seeking research contracts from the commercial or industrial sector. It is much more than graduating increasing numbers of young people and mature students. It is about coming to grips with, and contributing to, a new world.

Education and training and, in particular, vocational and professional education and training, are the biggest growth market in the world. You would not think so when you hear so many in universities beating their breasts about Pounds 5 billion per annum not being enough public money to finance higher education. But it is true.

The last years of this century, and certainly the early ones of the next century, are going to be those of the knowledge society. If there is to be the wealth to sustain the aspirations of those who live and work in Britain, then that wealth has to be won through successful competition in a world where the knowledge and capability stakes are already high and getting higher by the year.

Our national education and training targets are saying that we have to do better than we have ever done before. It is not a question of going back to the basics we once knew. Nor is it a question of restoring standards where standards may have slipped. It is not even a question of bringing the less good up to the standards of the best today. It is about moving into an entirely different league, a league where the pace-setters are not here in Europe or even in North America, but around the Pacific Rim, in other parts of Asia and emerging in China.

Higher education in this country has always made a very substantial contribution. Its research has underpinned some of the most successful and important technological and other advances. Its graduates (until now a small minority of any age group) have been our national leaders and, increasingly, our industrial and commercial leaders. Many of our offerings, far more than most people give us credit for, are vocational in orientation. In many of our faculties research and teaching, theory and practice, are bound together in a continuum for which too little credit has been given.

Even so, until now, we have done little more than scratch the surface of the contribution that we could make. What, then, are the challenges and opportunities?

First, the young school-leavers of the future. Those entering our universities today may expect to live through at least half of the 21st century. Can we honestly say that our offerings are preparing them adequately for that? This world will be one of instant communication, a worldwide economy in which, nevertheless, individual cultures and peoples feel a greater need than ever before to assert their individual identities; the Asian century; a world of stresses and strains in inner cities, as underclasses develop; a world in which people live much longer; and a world, above all, in which the nature and organisation of work and employment will change fundamentally.

From now on we can expect the expectations of young people entering universities to change. More and more will have passed through a Technical and Vocational Education Initiative programme.

They will be used to personal action planning; to exploring the applications of knowledge at the same time as the theory is unfolded; to a range and quality of equipment in their schools, the like of which few universities can rival, and to teachers who do not lecture but support.

As the future unfolds, more and more of those young people are likely to come from the local community. Whatever the future of student financing, we may well see more and more of those young people moving in and out of higher education, doing a module, then going off to earn some money, then returning. More and more young people will seek to learn partly at one institution and partly at another. They will expect to get credit for what they have achieved elsewhere.

Then there are the mature students, who are already, if Department for Education statistics are to be believed, a majority of those enrolling for undergraduate programmes. Most will be part-time students. Many will seek access through distance learning. Many may have no formal qualifications but invaluable and relevant experience and expertise. Many will expect barrier-free pathways, particularly from and through further education to higher education.

Many of the mature students will be seeking professional updating as more and more professions make this a requirement or an expectation. We see the trends clearly in engineering, in the health service, in law and, indeed, in education itself.

Such are the noises universities make that the general public could be forgiven for thinking that the Government had screwed down the lid firmly on any expansion of student numbers. The reality is very different. Unless and until there is a serious long-term solution to public financing of higher education (and it is urgent and important that there should be one if economic competitiveness is not to suffer) the numbers of award-bearing students will be constrained. But there is no ceiling on part-timers, mature students or those who pay their own way or for whom others will pay.

All those students will expect those who work in higher educations particularly academic staff, to be outward looking, not introvert. Of course there is a worldwide community of learning and achievement in any academic discipline. It will remain. But that community is not the only one which must engage our commitment in the years ahead.

There are also local communities, regional communities, the national community, if UK plc is to survive and prosper. Universities have barely begun to make the contribution they could to economic development in those communities; to technology transfer; or to working with that world outside in developing research. Even in departments bearing names such as "business studies" or "management", we have barely begun to address the needs of smaller and medium-sized firms, of the new employment patterns, of "portfolio lives" and of self-employment and enterprise.

Higher education is a giant which is only half awake. As the Confederation of British Industry meets in conference it is vital that universities should send a message loud and clear that higher education wants to be a major partner in the national enterprise.

The CBI has proposed a 40 per cent graduation rate by the end of the century and a 50 per cent graduation rate early in the next century. They are vital if we are to compete in tomorrow's world. Yet what message have universities sent? That it cannot be done. That resources are not enough. That the taxpayer should give more. That it is too difficult. Even that it is not sensible or desirable. What kind of message is that?

If higher education is about anything it is about exploring and realising the potential of the world around us and understanding it better. That world is full of people (though you might not realise it in some academic debates). One thing we know for sure is that the potential of individuals in this country of ours has never yet been fully released.

The message we must send to those people and to those who employ them is that we know that, that we are committed to achievement in partnership with them, that we have the means and know the ways and that we also have the will.

Sir Geoffrey Holland is vice chancellor of the University of Exeter and a former permanent secretary at the Department for Education.

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