Since Lord Mandelson dropped his pre-Christmas funding cuts bombshell, universities across the board have been reeling. Vice-chancellors have been counting how many student places will have to be cut and how many staff will have to be made redundant. Universities have been accused of “scaremongering” by ministers; ministers, in turn, have been accused of singling out higher education for more than its fair share of cuts and of causing irreversible damage to the sector. The situation appears intractable – how can universities be expected to do more with less?
Employers have yet to be involved properly in this debate, but they have an important perspective that should not be overlooked. With a general election imminent, the Association of Graduate Recruiters has launched a manifesto on behalf of 750 graduate employers. It proposes a package of measures that we think represents the best chance of securing the future of higher education in this country and safeguarding the value of a degree.
If we are going to resolve the current impasse, we cannot shy away from the harsh realities – some difficult choices have to be made very soon. For this reason, we have developed proposals that are pragmatic and achievable even if they may not be universally well received.
Let’s look first at the issue of university places. If a lack of places was a problem last year, it is going to be made significantly worse by government funding cuts. One answer is to campaign against the cuts. Another approach is to look at the demand side of the equation as well as the supply. Yes, we want as many young people as possible to progress to higher education but, crucially, only on the basis of academic ability and achievement. Of course we must widen participation – but not indiscriminately.
In our view, the government target to get 50 per cent of all people under 30 into higher education has affected standards and damaged the quality of the student university experience. This does not help young people’s life chances or represent a good financial investment for their families. It creates problems for graduate employers, who can no longer be sure of the value of degree courses and institutions. It does little for the reputation of our universities, either. The focus of higher education must always be on quality. Young people should be given accurate and impartial information and advice about higher education courses and alternatives to going to university.
With cuts looming, the issue of student top-up tuition fees comes inevitably into sharp focus. We support a phased removal of the cap on tuition fees by 2020. We, like many others, have concerns about the effect such a move could have on social mobility, but we believe that if safeguards are put in place to protect students from disadvantaged backgrounds, this must be the way forward. Encouraging parents who are able to save for the prospect of higher education will be important.
Making students into consumers and turning higher education into a market economy will generate money for universities, but there is a quid pro quo. Universities will be compelled to demonstrate to students and parents that their degree courses represent a sound financial investment, to be honest about the value of the courses and qualifications they offer, and to share the employment outcomes of their graduates.
It is also worth pointing out that increasing tuition fees alone will not fill the funding gap, and future funding for higher education will need to strike a better balance between the contributions of the taxpayer, students and parents and, possibly, employers. Others have called for tuition fees to be abolished and for business to foot the bill for the higher education infrastructure through corporation tax. In my view, that approach hardly represents a fair division of responsibility. After all, employers already spend in the region of £3 billion each year on recruiting and training graduates.
Of course, if business is going to invest in higher education, employers can reasonably expect to have some input on the design of curricula and to have a supply of graduates who possess basic employability skills. Employers need graduates who are equipped with a range of core work skills as well as academic ability, but many degree courses still do not help students develop these in even a modest way. We want to see employers working with universities to develop the curriculum in a way that embeds employability skills in every degree course in every institution.
Less controversially perhaps, our manifesto also calls for the introduction of the Higher Education Achievement Report and for more support and resources for university careers services – both from government and from university senior management.
In our view, there has never been a greater need for government, employers and universities to agree a shared vision for higher education. I do not believe it is overstating the case to say that the reputation of higher education in the UK, as well as national prosperity and productivity, depends on it.