Universities have gone “too far” into the business model of providing full-time residential degrees to be able to “adapt” provision to offer the higher technical and professional education needed to boost productivity.
In an interview with Times Higher Education at the Association of Colleges’ annual conference, John Widdowson, the organisation’s president, and Nick Davy, its higher education policy manager, said that young people would start to think twice about the university route once they understood how much debt they would accrue from tuition fees.
Mr Davy said that it was clear that England had a “weak technical and professional education system” because we had “put all our eggs in one basket” of higher education provision and now “that basket was becoming more and more expensive for the individual”.
“It seems to me we have a mismatch between what we’re supplying and what the demands are,” he said. “If we’re going to develop a technical and professional stream, it’s the colleges that have got the expertise and the links with local employers and labour markets.
“The universities have been given the opportunity, and I don’t think they’re particularly interested in short-cycle higher education.”
Mr Davy added that England’s “cultural heritage” of young people going off to university at 18 had blinded many to the fact that they would face substantial debt when they leave.
“It’s only going to be April 2016 when [the first set of students paying £9,000 tuition fees] get the first bill through the door,” he said. “At the moment, [there] hasn’t been anything. Young people don’t have a concept of debt in the way that perhaps older people do.
“That long history in England of going away to a university, I think that will begin to erode. Not completely, because it’s still very much part of our culture, but [it will].”
Mr Widdowson said that universities had “moved away from” skills provision to focusing on full-time undergraduate programmes.
“Either universities adapt [or they don’t], but they’ve probably gone too far into the business model of substantial full-time student numbers, driving substantial income that requires them to do certain things,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult for them to pull back from that.”
Elsewhere, Lord Blair of Boughton, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who delivered a keynote speech at the conference on leadership in difficult times, told THE that the academic community had its part to play in countering the radicalisation of young people in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.
Although it would be wrong for the government to require academics to “take notes” on their students, he said, universities and their staff cannot think: “I’m not going to take any notice of extreme behaviour and extreme thought, that’s not my job.”
“It’s for the university sector to accept that this is a problem: 129 people died in Paris,” he said. “It’s not all their problem, there are other places where people get radicalised, but they do have an in loco parentis position to protect young people,” Lord Blair said.
“I would say the government has a right to ask the academic sector to do its part. All the academic sector has to do is take the leadership role of determining what that might be.”