Balances of power

September 16, 2005

Canny students who won't heed their elders have much to teach market advocates, says David Watson

This week, Universities UK's Longer-Term Strategy Group publishes the fifth annual report in its series Patterns of Higher Education Institutions in the UK . These reports are largely based on analysis of data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency prepared by Brian Ramsden, Hesa's founding chief executive. They make an important contribution to UUK's mission of confronting opinion with evidence.

Throughout the series, the reports have provided valuable information about the sector's performance. They have not always made comfortable reading.

The series as a whole should give pause to the more aggressive advocates of an untrammelled market for places. The reports have underlined at least five lessons about the market.

Lesson one: students won't do what their elders think they should. This lesson partly concerns choice of subjects. The reports have underlined the difficulties providers have faced in adjusting to the popularity, or otherwise, of certain courses. The reports show how many institutions have chosen to enter a field (such as sports science) after the market has peaked. It also concerns mode of study - the sector has had to deal with rapid growth in demand for part-time undergraduate and full-time postgraduate courses. It concerns brands - only in relation to public sector employment do foundation degrees seem to have high-volume future prospects. Finally, it is about choice of institutions. "Hard-to-reach" groups remain concentrated in the least well-funded part of the sector. The longer term evidence suggests that students are right to be recalcitrant.

Above all, bright students do not to want to be boxed into narrow disciplinary and professional areas.

Lesson two: who are the real stakeholders? It is interesting to reflect on what universities are doing when they are not engaged in creating the next generation of scholars in particular disciplines. In the 21st century, the answer is clear. Higher education is working for the health and social care industries. Our exposure is staggering: approximately 14 per cent of student registrations, 19 per cent of fee income and 30 per cent of research income.

Lesson three concerns the dangers of a Procrustean approach to regionalism.

The reports show the increasing influence of the policies of devolved administrations on the composition and performance of "their" institutions.

There is evidence of a lack of fit between provision and the English regions - where "regional" provision is much more naturally driven by communications and population patterns than by administrative boundaries; where provision overall is uneven; and where there might be said to be a separate higher education "country" called London and the South East. In this "superregion" you will find 34 per cent of home students, 44 per cent of international students and 58 per cent of ethnic minority students. You will also find 40 per cent of higher education income and 47 per cent of research income. The latest two reports show the same effect in terms of movement after graduation. Despite the rhetoric, regional policy is anything but market-driven.

Lesson four comes to the fore most obviously in the 2005 report: international recruitment is about more than the bottom line. Both staff and student numbers in so-called "strategic subjects" are being significantly maintained by recruitment across and beyond the European Union.

The final lesson is for the policy-makers. For higher education to make its full contribution to national prosperity, higher quality of life and social cohesion, funding and other policies have to support different types of universities and colleges. We need a world-class sector, not just a few purportedly world-class institutions.

Who should learn what from these lessons? Individual institutions need to recognise that they are not alone; that many of the challenges are for them to reflect and act upon collaboratively. The Government may have to temper its enthusiasm for cherry-picking aspects of other national systems. They would like US-style market-driven variability, but not many of the things that come with it: tolerance of delayed completion; abandonment of professional formation at the "first-cycle" or undergraduate level; weakening of quality control and other aspects of consumer protection, and so on.

Just as opinion-formers can't dictate to a market for long (for example, in talking up "strategic subjects") so "consumers" can't simply "purchase" a degree. We share an interest in preserving the personal as well as the social value of hard-earned academic awards.

David Watson chaired the Longer-Term Strategy Group of UUK. In October, he will move to the Institute of Education, London University as professor of higher education management. Patterns of Higher Education Institutions in the UK is available from UUK.

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